The Nationals have known all year they would replace Manager Davey Johnson at the end of the season, but they never envisioned it would become a topic of conversation so soon. The Braves’ three-game sweep pushed the Nationals 15½ games out of first place in the NL East and nine games back of the second wild-card spot. Rather than a pennant chase and playoff preparations, the Nationals can already peek ahead at next year.
The biggest question hovering over the team will soon become, if it has not already, the identity of its next manager. It is too early in the process to do any serious handicapping, but a few names have surfaced. Along with internal possibilities Randy Knorr and Trent Jewett, Astros Manager Bo Porter, Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams and Pirates hitting coach Jay Bell have been mentioned in team and major league circles as potential candidates.
The good news for the Nationals is that they should have no trouble attracting the replacement they want. They still have much of the talent that won 98 games in 2012, and the chance to manage Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, among others, would be a strong selling point. Most teams looking for a new manager are in disarray. Despite their poor performance and careening season, the Nationals do not fit that mold.
After the Nationals brought Johnson back after the 2011 season, General Manager Mike Rizzo said he wanted to hire the Nationals’ next manager from their coaching staff in order to promote continuity. Circumstances and motivations change, of course. The Nationals’ disappointing season would seem to make a smooth transition to one of Johnson’s coaches less likely. The staff was hired by Rizzo, though, and so they do not necessarily mimic Johnson’s managerial style and approach.
Rizzo has at times wanted Johnson to be more intense toward players. His urging of Johnson to harp on players led to a shouting match last year in Philadelphia between the two.
Williams, 47, would provide a significant contrast to Johnson in that regard. He has close ties to Rizzo. Williams played for the Diamondbacks from 1998 to 2003, a period during which Rizzo served as the Diamondbacks’ scouting director.
Rizzo has spoken about his admiration for Williams’s leadership abilities as a player with the Diamondbacks. Back in the spring of 2010, he cited Williams, who made five all-star teams in a 17-year career, as an example of the kind of fiery presence he wanted players to bring in Washington.
“Like we did in Arizona — [shoot], the manager didn’t have to say a word,” Rizzo said then. “You screwed up, Matt Williams put you in a locker. And that was end of it. Mark Grace, Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez — those were the guys who gave the fines, jump peoples’ [rear], put a guy in a locker.”
Williams isn’t the only name on that list who could become a candidate. Bell, 47, also overlapped with Rizzo in Arizona, playing for the Diamondbacks from 1998 through 2002. Bell served as Arizona’s bench coach in 2006 before a semi-retirement. He returned as a minor league hitting coach in Arizona’s system in 2012 and has been the Pirates’ bench coach this season. He has less experience than other candidates, and so the Nationals may ultimately be more interested in bringing Bell on as a coach.
Porter is an ownership favorite and also highly regarded by Rizzo and Johnson. Trying to bring him back would be complicated for the Nationals. Porter has stated his long-term commitment to the Astros, who play in his home town. Plus, the Nationals would need to make a trade with Houston in order to pry him from a multiyear contract.
Rizzo described Knorr in late July as a “manager-caliber bench coach.” His biggest strength is his familiarity with the organization, which he has been a part of since 2001, when he joined the Expos as a catcher.
Either in the minors or majors, Knorr has managed or coached almost every player to come through the Nationals’ system. Knorr grabbed attention this season when he yanked Rafael Soriano from a save situation when filling in for Johnson after the manager had been ejected. The bold move received support within the clubhouse.
Jewett, a long-time minor league manager and coach in the Pirates’ system, has earned trust in the clubhouse as a coach for the past three seasons. He managed Class AAA Syracuse in 2010.
“I know we have some guys that are on the staff here that have managed [in the minors],” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I’ve said this all year, even with [Rick Eckstein] getting fired: The coaches that we have here, the guys that have worked with Davey and have been here two or three years, are really good coaches.
“I wouldn’t be upset if someone from within was hired. I think we have a couple guys that are qualified. It’s not really my job to pick managers. The group that we have here, still being a relatively young group that has a lot of years together, I think hiring someone from within would kind of keep us rolling. Obviously, this year didn’t work out great. You got to kind of look beyond that.”