Nationals to hire Matt Williams as manager (updated)

Matt Williams

(Associated Press)

(Updated 12:40 p.m.)

The Nationals plan to hire Arizona Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams to become the fifth manager in the team’s brief history, according to a person familiar with the situation. The expected move was first reported by Fox Sports. The Nationals have not confirmed Williams’s planned hiring, as MLB prohibits teams from making major announcements during the World Series.

Williams, 47, was a power-hitting third baseman for 17 major league seasons with the San Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians and Diamondbacks before he became a coach. He has been with the Diamondbacks for the previous four years and has no managerial experience aside from a stint in the Arizona Fall League last season.

Williams will become the first manager to have been named in the Mitchell Report, MLB’s first official documentation of performance-enhancing drug use in baseball.  In 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle, citing business records, reported Williams bought $11,600 worth of steroids and human growth hormone from a Florida clinic in 2002. Then a broadcaster, Williams told the Chronicle he tried HGH to recover from an ankle injury and stopped using it because he did not like the effect.

The decision, according to a person close to the situation, was made as a collaboration between General Manager Mike Rizzo and ownership. Rizzo had been close to Williams since the early 2000s, when Rizzo was the Diamondbacks’ scouting director and Williams was finishing his playing career.

People close to Rizzo believe he had wanted to hire Williams for months. Williams, according to a person familiar with the situation, blew away the Lerner family with his commanding presence in an interview. Former Manager Davey Johnson, who remains a front office adviser, did not have a role in the choice but still endorsed it.

“I think that’s a good choice,” said Johnson, the man Williams will replace. “He’s more fiery, like Mike likes. I was probably too laid back for him. I think it’s good. I will definitely stay in the background.”

The Nationals would want to retain popular bench coach Randy Knorr, who was the leading internal candidate and the choice of current players. Knorr has been with the franchise since 2001 as a player, minor league manager and coach. Knorr said he had not been informed of Williams’s impending hire but would want to remain in Washington even if he is not promoted to manager. Knorr would be a valuable resource for Williams because of his experience in the dugout and his extensive knowledge of the Nationals’ personnel.

“I like this team,” Knorr said in a phone conversation. “I don’t ever want to leave this team.”

Knorr was one of at least four other candidates the Nationals interviewed. They also spoke with first base coach Trent Jewett, Padres front office official Brad Ausmus, Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale.

Williams will be charged with taking the Nationals, a team that has won 184 games the past two seasons, to Washington’s first World Series victory since 1924. The Nationals won 86 games and finished second in 2013, a season considered a disappointment after they romped to the NL East title in 2012. Williams will take over a young, talented roster that includes Stephen Strasburg atop the rotation and all-star caliber players Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond in the middle of the lineup.

Williams “never says anything bad about anybody,” Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill said at the end of the regular season. “He always finds the positive in people. I think that’s a huge aspect. That’s one key thing that will definitely help. He’s a competitor. Anytime he feels like someone is disrespecting the game, he’s going to tell you. He respects the game tremendously. I’d hate to have him leave. We love him here. Someone would be truly blessed to have him on their team.”

Rizzo did not return a message. He knows Williams from their time together in Arizona, when Rizzo served as the Diamondbacks scouting director and Williams, who retired in 2003, was finishing his career. Rizzo has referenced his fondness toward Williams in the past. In the spring of 2010, Rizzo said he viewed Williams’s fiery persona as a template for players he wanted to build his teams with.

“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.”

As a player, Williams made five all-star teams, won four Gold Gloves and finished second in the 1994 MVP vote and third in 1999. Respected by opponents and perhaps feared by some teammates, Williams became known as much for his powerful bat and slick fielding as his simmering intensity. Current Diamondbacks players and those close to him say he has mellowed as a coach and praised him for his ability to understand players.

“He had a presence,” said Bob Brenly, Williams’s manager with the Diamondbacks. “Certain guys have a presence, and when they speak in the clubhouse or when they speak in the dugout or on the team plane, the rest of the guys stop what they’re doing and listen. He wasn’t a real vocal guy. He wasn’t chirping all the time. But when he did speak, he commanded the attention of his teammates.

“Everybody understood – Matty was a pusher. Every game. Every day. It didn’t matter if it was a Tuesday day game against the last place team in the league or playing the team you’re battling for the postseason with. Every day, he was out there pushing his teammates. When he spoke, people listened.”

A native of Carson City, Nevada, Williams attended UNLV.  Williams’s grandfather, Bert Griffith, appeared in six games for the 1924 Washington Senators.

Williams “was a hard-nosed player,” Johnson said. “He played the game hard. I know he hasn’t managed, but a lot of guys haven’t managed have been successful. They all came into a good situation. He’s coming into a good situation. The bench will be in better shape and the bullpen will be in better shape. He’ll have better options than I had last year. I’m happy for him.”

Related
D.C. Sports Bog: When Matt Williams’s grandpa played for the Senators
Oct. 17: Matt Williams interviews for Nats manager position
Sept. 28: Diamondbacks players praise Matt Williams

Also on Nationals Journal

Ian Desmond, Denard Span named Gold Glove award finalists