Matt Williams was formally announced as the Nationals’ new manager on Thursday morning, with his introductory press conference to take place Friday afternoon. But before that, General Manager Mike Rizzo spoke with local reporters Thursday on a conference call, making his first public comments on Williams’ hiring, the managerial search and the makeup of the coaching staff.
Williams was among at least five candidates interviewed for the vacant manager position and, in his meetings with Rizzo and Nationals ownership, he made a strong impression. Rizzo has known Williams since 1999 from their time together in Arizona, where Rizzo rose to scouting director and Williams, who retired in 2003, was finishing his career. Rizzo has long respected Williams and admitted that he has eyed him as a potential manager for years.
“Matt’s performance, first of all his presentation, his communication skills, his knowledge of the ball club, the league, the division, his presence and some of the character traits he possesses were really the difference between he and the other very qualified candidates,” Rizzo said.
Despite his deep familiarity and admiration for Williams, Rizzo insisted that the former third baseman wasn’t a favorite entering the managerial search. He, along with Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, were seen as the top two candidates. The Nationals also also spoke with first base coach Trent Jewett, Padres front office official Brad Ausmus and Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale.
“I knew a lot of the candidates, and like I said before, they were all terrific interviews and the process went great,” Rizzo said. “It was a very difficult decision, but Matt, we felt, possessed all the characteristics of a successful manager and a guy that we think could take us to the next level … We had several internal candidates that were extremely good candidates, and we just felt that Matt’s message, the way he communicates the message, and his demeanor and character was kind of the difference-maker for me.”
Even though he wasn’t offered the manager’s position, Knorr has said and reiterated on Thursday that he would return as Nationals bench coach. Rizzo wouldn’t make any announcements as he said discussions with coaches were ongoing, but added that next year’s coaching staff would look similar to before. Keeping Knorr, someone with intimate knowledge of the Nationals system, would help Williams.
“There’s not going to be a whole transforming of the coaching staff,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to try to keep some consistency. But we’re not at the point yet where we can announce what the coaching staff consists of.” Reading between the lines, expect some of the major coaches to remain the same: Steve McCatty as pitching coach and Rick Schu as hitting coach — and if not, perhaps Schu would move to another capacity in the organization.
In the 2012 Arizona Fall League, Williams served as the manager of the Salt River Rafters, which had several Nationals prospects. And he was also the manager of the Class AA Mobile BayBears for five weeks in 2007. Williams spent the past four seasons as a major league coach for the Diamondbacks and worked with the infielders. Even as a player, Rizzo saw traits in Williams that would lend themselves to managing.
“Matt Williams’s ascension to the manager’s position took a long time and took a lot of stick-to-it-ness for him,” Rizzo said. “Here’s a guy who has made a lot of money as a player and doesn’t need to get into coaching or managing. But because of his passion for the game and his love for baseball, it kinda feeds him. He wants to be in it. He’s a guy who was a manager in training as a player. He was one of those players who was a manager on the field and put his apprenticeship in as a coach in the big leagues and a manager in the Arizona Fall League, so that type of thing. There are different routes to the manager’s office. I think experience is important, but you can get experience in many different ways.”
Rizzo said he sees Williams as an “extremely intellectual” and “articulate” person who prepares well and knew about the Nationals’ minor league system. Soon enough, Williams will get to meet and talk with each of the Nationals players before spring training. Building a relationship with the players will take time. And Rizzo has a strong belief that Williams’ personality will fit right in.
“The first instruction for me to Matt is to be Matt Williams,” Rizzo said. “That’s the guy we hired. That’s the guy we want. That’s the personality that we want in the dugout. Be yourself. Because that’s the person that we want manning the dugout. Be yourself.”
Williams also becomes the first manager to be named in the Mitchell Report as a player, which Rizzo said was considered during the vetting process. But he was impressed with Williams’s manner of addressing it. 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. Williams told the Chronicle he tried HGH to recover from an ankle injury and stopped using it because he did not like the effect
“We didn’t agonize over it,” Rizzo said. “It was certainly brought [up]. In the interview process, we asked about it. … Matt was extremely candid about the Mitchell Report and owned up to it. He certainly showed accountability for it. He wants to only be judged by his coaching and managing going forward.”