With Piniella, Cubs Close, Girardi Emerges as Nats' Front-Runner

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

DETROIT, Oct. 14 -- The search for the next manager of the Washington Nationals has been conducted in secrecy from within the club's offices at RFK Stadium, with General Manager Jim Bowden and President Stan Kasten casting a net that includes former major league managers looking for jobs and current major league coaches hoping for their first big breaks.

But the greatest impact on the Nationals' process could actually occur in Chicago, where reports indicate that the Cubs are preparing to hire Lou Piniella -- once coveted by the Nationals -- as their replacement for Dusty Baker. The trickle-down in Washington: Joe Girardi, a former Cub who interviewed with Chicago GM Jim Hendry, could become even a stronger front-runner for the Nationals' job.

No offer had been extended to Girardi as of Saturday afternoon, according to sources with knowledge of the Nationals' search. But with the Cubs apparently ready to work out a deal with Piniella -- as the Chicago Sun-Times reported in Saturday's editions, with the official announcement coming perhaps Friday -- Girardi will still be looking for work, and no franchise with an opening has kept after Girardi as aggressively as the Nationals.

Even as the Cubs interviewed Girardi last week -- Hendry brought him through the Cubs' offices at Wrigley Field, reintroducing him to old acquaintances, and then took him to dinner -- some close to Girardi warned that it wasn't a fait accompli that the former Cubs catcher and Northwestern alum would necessarily prefer the Cubs' job, should it be offered. In fact, Girardi -- who worked for the YES Network after retiring as a player, before he accepted a job on the staff of New York Yankees Manager Joe Torre -- likely would have the opportunity to move back into television if he doesn't like the managing opportunities available to him.

There are other signs that Girardi, 42, is no longer in the running in Chicago and that Piniella is the choice, even as San Diego Manager Bruce Bochy emerged as a candidate. Piniella said Friday he had taken himself out of the running for the opening with the San Francisco Giants, citing geography. Piniella left the Seattle Mariners for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after the 2002 season so he could work at home in Tampa. Chicago, obviously, is a less-arduous journey from Tampa, and Piniella has also spoken glowingly of the Cubs' rabid following.

Earlier in the week, Piniella said the rebuilding job in front of the Nationals was "a situation that's really not for a guy like me. I think they're going to go for a young manager -- and rightfully so."

Girardi has spoken with Nationals officials at least twice. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported yesterday that Girardi's pitching coach with the Marlins, Rick Kranitz, will stay in Florida with new manager Fredi Gonzalez. Kranitz had been the pitching coach with the Cubs before he joined Girardi and the Marlins for the 2006 season, and he was widely respected for what he did with a young pitching staff in Florida -- coaxing at least 10 wins out of four rookie starters, a feat that had never been accomplished before.

The Nationals, in turn, may not need Girardi to bring his own pitching coach to Washington, where club officials -- most notably Bowden -- have praised the work of Randy St. Claire, who served in the same capacity under former manager Frank Robinson. Asked late in the season about the improvement in some of the Nationals' young pitchers, Bowden said, "I think it shows what a great pitching coach Randy St. Claire is."

Bowden hasn't spoken publicly about the search since Robinson's last day as manager, Oct. 1. Kasten has outlined only broad terms, saying the search would likely include several candidates from a racially diverse pool, and that he would like to have someone in place by the start of baseball's winter meetings on Dec. 4.

The Nationals have also spoken to Baker, former manager of the Cubs and Giants; Terry Pendleton, the hitting coach with the Atlanta Braves; Joey Cora, the third base coach for the Chicago White Sox; and Cecil Cooper, the bench coach for the Houston Astros. They asked permission to speak with Yankees first base coach Tony Peña, who once managed the Kansas City Royals, but it is not known whether they have interviewed Peña yet. It is likely there are other candidates who have not been publicly identified.

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