Jim Riggleman’s departure was inevitable, just sooner than expected

Jason Reid
Columnist June 24, 2011

Manager Jim Riggleman’s abrupt departure Thursday from the Washington Nationals simply accelerated a process already speeding toward that conclusion.

Although it was surprising Riggleman would resign before midseason — especially with the ballclub playing uncharacteristically well recently — the truth is Riggleman wasn’t in the franchise’s long-term plans. He had about as much chance of receiving a multiyear deal from the Nationals as outfielder Jayson Werth does of proving he deserves his ridiculous contract.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Riggleman was merely a stopgap solution. He was nothing more than a placeholder for whomever General Manager Mike Rizzo eventually picks to lead the team sometime after this season, which the Nationals apparently were willing to write off to some degree the minute Stephen Strasburg’s pitching elbow gave out. That’s the only logical conclusion to draw from Rizzo’s offseason decision to bring back Riggleman despite his lack of confidence in him.

Struggling professional franchises don’t publicly acknowledge they have little chance to contend. A club’s first objective is to be relevant in its market, and waving a white flag isn’t conducive to increasing attendance.

The buzz around Strasburg last season stirred unprecedented local and national interest in the Nationals. With Strasburg likely sidelined for the entire 2011 season after Tommy John surgery, the lights dimmed.

Losing Strasburg wasn’t just a massive blow to the starting rotation. His absence presented a multilayered, multimillion dollar problem that in some form affects every aspect of the Nationals’ operation.

Rizzo knew that when he was assessing the team during the winter. He understood Strasburg is much more than a talented young pitcher who possesses overpowering stuff and great command.

If Strasburg’s right elbow holds up, he could be the most important player in Rizzo’s strategy to close the gap between Washington and Philadelphia in the National League East. Good players can be replaced through free agency and trades. The centerpiece of an organization’s hope for sustained success cannot.

That doesn’t mean the Nationals privately gave up before the season. Rizzo made moves in an attempt to improve the team immediately and in the future.

Obviously, the games are still played despite Strasburg’s absence, and professionals are paid to perform regardless of who’s missing from the lineup. Anyone with a clue, however, realizes the Nationals were really looking beyond this season.

Determining the team’s potential was much higher with Strasburg than without him, Rizzo was content to leave Riggleman in place and see how things developed. No need to make a change, Rizzo seemingly surmised, because the Nationals were waiting for Strasburg to rehab and prospects to mature.

Besides, managers have limited influence over the outcome of games. Talent, as always, is the biggest factor in performance.

It was easier for Rizzo to stick with Riggleman a little longer, based on the team’s 2010 improvement, and wait to hire the guy he wanted when the team was more fully in place. General managers only get so many chances to hire managers.

Ironically, though, Riggleman’s untimely resignation likely will result in Rizzo having to put more managers in place than he ever expected.

So Rizzo stood pat. But that’s as far as he was willing to go with Riggleman, who was eager to have his 2012 team option exercised for the same reasons Rizzo was reluctant to commit to him.

The Nationals could make a significant move in 2012 if Strasburg returns strong, minor leaguer Bryce Harper continues his rapid ascent and appears ready for a midseason call-up, and promising young players such as Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos keep improving. And if Rizzo chooses well in free agency, that would provide a bigger boost.

In his three previous managing stints, Riggleman worked with bad teams in San Diego, Chicago and Seattle. He led the Cubs to two winning records and the 1998 NL wild-card berth and hoped to have his best managerial run guiding a Nationals team that could be on the rise.

Riggleman believed he deserved the opportunity based on the job he had done. He thought he earned it for his effort throughout mostly tough times here as much for his current leadership during the team’s best stretch since 2005.

Strasburg hasn’t pitched an inning this season. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman missed most of the first half. Werth was batting .232 with runners in scoring position entering Friday night and has his lowest on-base plus slugging percentage since 2005 during the first year of a seven-year, $126-million contract that also includes a complete no-trade clause.

By this point, if Rizzo hadn’t seen whatever he supposedly was looking for in Riggleman, the likelihood is he never would have.

The Nationals elevated Rizzo to a position some in baseball believe he’s ill-equipped to handle. This is his shot. He should surround himself with only the people he wants, and he just wasn’t feeling the right vibe with the manager. Riggleman also had the right to walk away from a situation in which he felt unwanted, and that’s what he did.

Ultimately, this is where Rizzo and Riggleman have been headed all along. They just arrived faster than expected, and that’s probably best for both of them.

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