Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has done an excellent job in stocking the farm system and building a winning club at the major-league level. Few franchises rate as high as the Nats on both counts.
But when it comes to picking managers, Rizzo is 50-50.
Davey Johnson was a triple into the gap, leading Washington to respectability in 2012 with its first winning record and first division title. The team failed to meet Johnson’s “World Series or bust” proclamation the following season, missing the playoffs altogether, but the seasoned manager retired left with his fine reputation intact.
That’s when Rizzo hired Matt Williams. Although he led Washington to its second NL East crown and won Manager of the Year honors as a rookie skipper in 2014, Williams goes down as a strikeout for Rizzo.
“This wasn’t our best year,” Rizzo said Monday afternoon during a conference call with reporters after he fired Williams. “It wasn’t Matt’s best year and it wasn’t my best year.”
Rizzo had no choice but to part ways with the man he trusted to lead a championship-caliber team. The epic failure of a consensus World Series favorite sitting at home for the postseason isn’t entirely Williams’ fault. But there was too much stench attached to his strategy and communication skills and the situation stinks enough without him.
He didn’t construct the bullpen. He didn’t cause the injuries. He didn’t implode on the mound or fizzle at the plate. He didn’t instruct virtually every Nats player to perform below career standards.
But he also never grew in the position that Rizzo gave him on blind faith. On-the-job training wasn’t enough to make Williams better in relating to his players or developing gut instincts that could supersede by-the-book approaches when necessary.
“He had a steadiness, a calmness to him,” Rizzo said. “That was one of his strengths. He led by example and was extremely hard working. No one got to the park earlier, worked harder or cared more.”
Unfortunately for Williams and his tightly-wound ilk, working longer and harder can be the antithesis of working better and smarter. Baseball’s six-month marathon is enough of a grind without help from the manager’s office, especially when a team is expected to make a deep postseason run.
Perhaps as a defense mechanism against Williams – or perhaps an ingrained deficiency that needs to be addressed – the club never expressed a sense of urgency as the season frittered away. The Nats shriveled at the most inopportune times, being swept in crucial, late-season series against the Orioles, Giants and Mets (twice).
There’s no telling if an experienced manager would’ve fared better, but good skippers can be worth 10 victories. That would’ve given Washington 93 wins, three more than New York. Williams breezed through his inaugural season last year as the Nats won the division by 17 games and never led by fewer than six in September.
There was no real pressure until the Division Series against San Francisco. Sadly, those results were a precursor to this year’s performance under the strain of heightened expectations.
Rizzo would love to have a tried-and-true manager for a team that has plenty of win-now pieces. But pickings are slim when it comes to proven, retired free-agents such as Johnson and fellow old-timer Jim Leyland. The same is true of active candidates with name recognition and big-time resumes. Mike Scioscia, who has a World Series ring and two AL Manager of the Year awards, had an opt-out clause with the Los Angeles Angels but on Monday announced he was returning.
“We’re going to bring in a group of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences and skill sets,” Rizzo said. “That’s something we didn’t do last time. We brought in candidates with little or no managerial experience.”
No one would complain if a candidate fitting the latter profile turned out like Mike Matheny. He spent four years in the Cardinals’ front office upon retirement before landing in the dugout, having never managed at any level. All Matheny has done in four seasons is reach the playoffs every year.
Rizzo has to get this hire right in order to continue enjoying his handiwork. He still has a fine batting average but he erred in tabbing Williams and adding Jonathan Papelbon at the trade deadline. Picking the next manager will define Rizzo as much as stocking the farm system and constructing a major-league club that has the third-most victories since 2012.
“We feel like we’re one of the really stable and good organizations in baseball,” he said.
But that assessment is subject to change unless he makes a better managerial decision this time around.