After months of speculation made more interesting by a disappointing season, the Washington Nationals have a new manager — former Arizona Diamondbacks third-base coach Matt Williams. The organization is expected to make the announcement soon now that the World Series is over.
Baseball legend Davey Johnson, who came out of retirement in the middle of the 2011 season and led the Nationals to the playoffs a season ago, stepped down a month ago at the conclusion of the Major League Baseball regular season. The Nationals were expected to contend for a World Series championship in 2013, but instead wound up at 86-76 and failed to qualify for the MLB postseason. Initially, it seemed the Johnson succession plan revolved around bench coach Randy Knorr.
Knorr, a longtime minor league manager in the Nationals’ system, joined Johnson’s major league staff at the beginning of the 2012 season. The grand vision of the Nationals’ front office was to win the World Series and execute a seamless transition over to Knorr for 2014. When things went South, the idea of bringing in an external candidate arose to create enough of a change that Washington would be back on the winning track.
A central figure in the growth of the Arizona Diamondbacks franchise, Williams has been a coach for the Diamondbacks since 2010, working at first and third base and helping win the 2011 National League West title. Williams worked in the Diamondbacks’ front office and served as a broadcaster for the previous seven seasons. This second career for Williams followed a six-season stint as Arizona’s third baseman. As a player with the Diamondbacks, Cleveland Indians and San Francisco Giants, Williams appeared in three World Series (1989, 1997 and 2001).
Needless to say, Williams is a baseball man, but is he right for the Nationals?
First off, he has no managerial experience outside of a 32-game stint at the helm of the Mobile BayBears, Arizona’s Class AA affiliate, in 2007. While some managers, such as the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mike Matheny, have come into the league and been successful with no experience, this a major gamble. The Nationals are in the prime of their “winning window” with the current crop of talent and cannot afford a learning process for Williams. Needless to say, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo would not have made this move unless he had faith in the managerial abilities of Williams.
Second, while the Nationals went outside the organization for this hire, how far did they go? Williams is old friends with Rizzo from Rizzo’s tenure in the Diamondbacks’ front office. Will Williams be different enough from Johnson in that he can fix what went wrong? Will he be able control the wildly-talented, yet wildly-egotistical outfielder Bryce Harper? Only time will tell with this one. The 2014 Nationals have the opportunity to resemble a revitalized version of the 2013 squad, and Williams is the leader of that cause.
Third, Williams is the first former player linked to steroid use hired as a major league manager. To me, this is no big deal. Part of the steroid era fallout will be former alleged steroid users being hired as managers across the league. Williams only gets press in this regard because he is the first of this type.
The 2014 season is still months away, but for the Nationals, 2014 begins now.