Faced with the Washington Nationals’ most crucial personnel decision in years, General Manager Mike Rizzo bypassed the familiar for an outsider and eschewed experience for new blood. With their lofty aspirations intact after a disappointing season, Rizzo and the Nationals are betting that Matt Williams, who has never managed in the major leagues, can lead them somewhere they’ve never been: the World Series.
The Nationals plan to hire Williams as their fifth manager since baseball returned to Washington, according to a person close to Williams and familiar with the situation. The Nationals have not confirmed Williams’s planned hiring, as Major League Baseball prohibits teams from making major announcements during the World Series.
The decision was made in collaboration between Rizzo and ownership, according to another person close to the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement remained pending. Rizzo had been close to Williams since the early 2000s, when Rizzo served as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ scouting director and Williams was finishing his playing career as a power-hitting third baseman. Williams retired as a player in 2003 and has been a coach for the Diamondbacks the past four seasons.
People close to Rizzo believe he had wanted to hire Williams for months. Williams impressed the Lerner family with his commanding presence in an interview, according to a person familiar with the process. Davey Johnson, the man Williams will replace as manager, did not have a role in the choice but still endorsed it.
“I think that’s a good choice,” said Johnson, who remains a front-office adviser after his retirement from managing. “He’s more fiery, like Mike likes. I was probably too laid-back for him. I think it’s good.”
The expected hiring was first reported by Fox Sports.
Williams, 47, played 17 major league seasons with the San Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians and Diamondbacks. He began his post-playing career as a part owner and ambassador for the Diamondbacks. His only managerial experience is a stint in the Arizona Fall League last season.
As a means to provide Williams with institutional knowledge, the Nationals hope to retain popular bench coach Randy Knorr, the leading internal candidate and the choice of many 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.
“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, San Diego Padres front-office official Brad Ausmus and Toronto Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale. None had managed in the majors.
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 the National League East this past season, considered a disappointment after they romped to the division 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.
Rizzo has referenced his fondness toward Williams’s fierce outlook in the past. In the spring of 2010, Rizzo said he viewed Williams’s persona as a template for players he wanted to build his teams with.
“Like we did in Arizona . . . 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.”
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. In 1994 with the Giants, Williams was on pace to break Roger Maris’s season home run record before a strike ended the season. For his career, Williams hit .268 and mashed 378 home runs.
“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.”
Williams will be the first person named in the Mitchell Report, MLB’s first official documentation of performance-enhancing drug use in baseball, to become a manager. 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 a doctor advised him to use HGH to recover from an ankle injury and that he stopped using it because he did not like the effect. MLB began testing for steroids in 2003 and banned HGH in 2005.
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.
A native of Carson City, Nev., Williams attended the University of Nevada Las Vegas. 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.”
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report from St. Louis.
More on the Nationals:
Boswell: A leap of faith worth taking
DC Sports Bog: Williams’s grandfather played for Senators