Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Nationals should show Jim Riggleman that he’s part of their future

VIERA, Fla.

I figured Washington Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman wouldn’t discuss his shaky contract status.

(John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST) - Nationals manager Jim Riggleman.

A team-first guy when we were both working in Los Angeles years ago, Riggleman wasn’t the type to comment about sensitive personnel matters. He told me Thursday that hasn’t changed.

He would rather focus on the team instead of his standing, but Riggleman’s lack of job security is potentially a major problem for a franchise that has little to tout but potential. While offering fans little more than hopes for a better future, the Nationals should show Riggleman they plan for him to be part of theirs longer because of his steady performance under difficult circumstances.

This is the last guaranteed season in Riggleman’s contract. The Nationals hold an option for 2012.

Technically, Riggleman — believed to be among Major League Baseball’s lowest-paid managers — isn’t a lame duck. In the real world, though, the clock is ticking loudly.

It’s not hard to manage with essentially a one-year deal. It’s downright impossible.

That’s one of the most important lessons I learned in eight seasons covering baseball in Los Angeles, including during Riggleman’s four as bench coach for the Dodgers. Long-term contracts provide managers with the confidence necessary to make unpopular short-term moves.

Managers drop slumping hitters in batting orders, remove struggling starting pitchers from rotations and shake up bullpen roles. Ownership’s support provides them with the hammer to maintain order in the process.

Unless you’ve spent significant time in baseball clubhouses, it’s impossible to understand the dynamic that exists among managers, coaches and players — especially on bad teams.

Managers must exude a sense of control. There has to be an unspoken understanding that the guy who decides the lineup doesn’t do so by committee.

Successful managers draw the line early. The front office helps to maintain it daily, and managers who have long deals are viewed as being vital in the team hierarchy.

Short-timers usually don’t command as much respect from players. They’re also often reluctant to tackle many of the behind-the-scenes issues that inevitably occur during a 162-game season.

That’s not to suggest Riggleman will shrink from confrontation this season unless the ownership group headed by the Lerner family exercises his option. From my experience with Riggleman, he’s too professional and strong-willed to take the easy route regardless of his contract status.

But players respond to action, and clout resonates.

Has Riggleman accomplished enough for players to remain committed to his plan this season unless ownership makes a bigger commitment to him? Would he still have the juice to persuade players to try new approaches when five- and six-game losing streaks occur? And if the Nationals start poorly, would players “zone out” Riggleman in anticipation of him being replaced?

The Nationals improved from 59 wins in 2009 to 69 in 2010, Riggleman’s first full season. Washington’s rotation was ineffective for most of 2010, so the 10-game bump reflects well on Riggleman.

Managers really earn their money directing bullpens when teams have weak rotations, and many Nationals starters lacked big league caliber stuff. Riggleman deftly handled the team’s relief corps, mixing and matching in one of the best performances I’ve seen from a manager.

Washington relievers led the majors with 5452 / 3 innings and tied for fourth with a 3.33 earned run average. Among bullpens that totaled at least 540 innings, the Nationals had the seventh-best ERA ever.

Riggleman would rather not work the bullpen so hard. Maximizing the strength of ballclubs, however, is a big part of being an effective manager. That’s one of the things Nationals senior adviser Davey Johnson often used to tell me when he managed the Dodgers.

Riggleman also worked with bad teams during his previous three managing stints in San Diego, Chicago and Seattle. The Cubs did have two winning records under Riggleman and earned the 1998 National League wild-card berth.

In 237 games with the Nationals, Riggleman’s record is 102-135. In the 237 games before Riggleman led them, the Nationals were 82-155.

That’s progress.

In October, General Manager Mike Rizzo received a contract extension through 2015 and also was given the title of executive vice president of baseball operations. Rizzo’s strong support from the Lerners, at least in part, stems from what Riggleman has done while working with the least talent in the NL East.

Rizzo promoted Riggleman to interim manager at the 2009 all-star break and gave him the permanent job after that season. Obviously, those moves were signs of Rizzo’s confidence in Riggleman. Then again, the past doesn’t matter now.

The Nationals believe they’re on the right path to becoming a winning team. They’re confident their commitment to building through the draft and farm system will produce successful results, possibly as early as the 2012 season.

If Rizzo and the Lerners are sure about Riggleman, convinced that he’s the right man to lead them as their prospects mature, then they should publicly exercise his option before the season begins.

Doing so would send a message throughout the organization and to the fan base about Riggleman’s importance to the future. And silence about Riggleman’s situation would speak loudly as well.

 
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