Mike Rizzo’s tenure as GM of the Washington Nationals is highlighted by a few significant franchise-changing moves, but last Friday’s announcement of the hiring of Matt Williams as the fifth field manager in the nine-year history of the club will be his signature.
Williams, 47, edged out internal favorite, bench coach Randy Knorr for the job. Williams was the third base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He has ties to Rizzo, who joined the Arizona front office when the franchise was created in 1998. The move is significant because for the first time since becoming GM in 2009, Rizzo finally has ‘his team.’
When Jim Riggleman resigned as manager after winning 10 of 11 games in June 2011, Washington found itself in a scramble. Bench coach John McLaren took over for the weekend series versus the Chicago White Sox, but the front office had as little interest in him as the manager. The recently retired Davey Johnson, was acting as the senior advisor to Rizzo at the time, was pressed into service as the manger.
Johnson went on to manage the Nationals until this season, guiding them to a 98-win division championship in 2012. But at 68-years old at his assignment, he was never considered more than a stopgap. Johnson’s hiring gave Washington short-term relief, allowing its young core to learn from a veteran baseball personality while searching for a long-term manager that would inherit a championship-ready club.
The Nationals had no identity when Johnson took over, but his steadfast presence ushered in a new era of competitiveness absent from in the history of the franchise. His presence and instruction helped several players, notably shortstop Ian Desmond, who was an All-Star in 2012, won his second straight silver slugger award last week and was a finalist for the Gold Glove the second straight year.
More importantly, Desmond was encouraged to step up by Johnson, and seized the opportunity to become one of the most vocal players in the clubhouse.
All the while, the missing piece has been a strongman at the top. The Nationals were not building towards 2012 or 2013. They have been building to this point. Rizzo never seriously, or at all, considered veteran managers Dusty Baker, Charlie Manuel, or the retired Jim Leyland.
Rizzo has spent the last few years building towards this team, spending his tenure as GM drafting solid fielders and power pitchers, and supplementing them with veteran free agents — the missing piece was Rizzo’s guy.
Rizzo wanted a manager who was essentially going to be an extension of him, and he was not going to find it in any of the available veterans. He certainly did not have it with Johnson, who, despite his contributions to the club, often clashed with Rizzo over team philosophy, including a semi-public episode in August of 2012 after Washington was swept by the Philadelphia Phillies, when Johnson was heard yelling at Rizzo “you should come down and manage the team.”
Rizzo wants Washington to be the next great dynasty, led by a manager expected to bring multiple championships to the district. Rizzo has never shied away from his insistence on building the club one way: his way. And that way includes a certain ‘edge’ in the leadership.
While Johnson deserves just as much credit for the team’s development as does Rizzo, Johnson’s relaxed, ‘we’ll get them tomorrow,’ outlook on the game clashed with Rizzo’s fiery demeanor. You can be certain that will change under Williams. If Bryce Harper is intentionally beaned by the Atlanta pitching staff three times next season, the Nationals will respond.
As a player, Williams was known for to be a fierce competitor and as third-base coach for the Diamondbacks, he took pride in Diamondbacks players leading the league in runners thrown out at home. When asked about his shouting match with Jayson Werth in 2011, Williams said ‘That’s how we play the game.’
It is those intangibles that won Williams the job. He fits in with the identity of the team that management has worked to create in recent years, and unlike one of the available veterans, can be expected to hold the position for the next decade. Perhaps most importantly, with Johnson retired, Rizzo is now the ‘top-cat.’
And that is a good thing. The Nationals are now ready to compete for multiple championships, and with Williams, the building stage is over.
Evan Szymkowicz is a Washington Nationals writer for Rantsports.com Follow him on twitter @evanszy19