Each September when rosters expand, the Nationals not only call up prospects and minor leaguers; they also bring up the coaching staff from Class AAA Syracuse. Last year, Syracuse Billy Gardner Jr. and his pitching coach and hitting coach joined the Nationals in September. This season, only Gardner came.
Gardner met the Nationals on Monday in Philadelphia after a few days off at home in Ohio following the conclusion of the Syracuse season on Sept. 7. He has a locker in the clubhouse, sits near Manager Matt Williams and his coaches during games, and was reunited with a handful of players (Trea Turner, Taylor Jordan, A.J. Cole, Rafael Martin, Matt Grace, Joe Ross and Blake Treinen) that he had in Syracuse for stretches this season.
“I get to watch them play, watch them work and be around the coaches,” Gardner said. “It’s good experience watching a major league game and it helps from an evaluation standpoint, especially at Triple-A. You get to see what it takes to be here.”
Gardner joined the Nationals before the 2014 season. Well-liked by players, Gardner guided the Chiefs to the playoffs with a 81-62 record and was named the International League Manager of the Year. Although the Chiefs finished the season strong this year, they compiled a 66-78 record. But winning is secondary to development, and the injury-plagued Nationals pulled often from the Syracuse.
“You want to have a develop-to-win type environment if you can,” said Gardner, who hopes to return to Syracuse next season. “But sometimes, things prevent that. The major league club had some injuries and needs, and that’s why we’re there.”
Gardner, the son of a former major league player and manager, is the caretaker for the development of Nationals prospects on the cusp of the majors and guiding the players who will serve as organizational depth. The Nationals rely on Gardner’s coaching and evaluation in decisions involving the Class AAA team, including call-ups to the majors.
“It’s a thankless job, especially in a year like this, to be the Triple-A manager,” Williams said. “On any given day, we’re stealing his starter or any one of his position players. Unfortunately this year, we’ve had a lot of that. He’s fun. He loves to be here. He got a chance to be home and get a few days off anyway before he came back. A good infield guy. Certainly a good manager. We’re glad to have him any time. He’s fun and fun-loving and enjoys the game very much. He was really into the game [Monday] night. We’re happy to have him.”
The highest-rated prospect Gardner managed this year was Turner, a player the Nationals view as a potential shortstop replacement for Ian Desmond.
During his quick rise through the minors, Turner played in 48 games with Syracuse before being called up. He hit .314 with a .353 on-base percentage along with 14 stolen bases. He played 44 games at shortstop, but committed 11 errors. (In fact, he made 21 errors in 111 games at shortstop this year between Class AA and Syracuse.) The Nationals had Turner played two games at second base, a position some scouts believe may be best for him, before his call-up.
“To me, he can play shortstop,” said Gardner, who play the corner infield spots as a minor leaguer himself. “He’s got the feet for it and he’s got the range. His hands are outstanding. There are things you can clean up, which he will, and that’s just through experience. He’s got everything you’re looking for there. People have talked about his arm. It’s not an explosive type of arm but for me it’s good enough to play there. He’s going to have to gain some ground and get rid of it quickly. I’ve seen him go to the hole on occasion and it came out pretty good over there.”
Gardner was impressed with the way Turner handled everything thrown at him season.
“He’s an exciting player with dynamic speed,” Gardner said. “He’s been through a lot. His first full season, got traded, then bouncing to different teams and getting to know new teammates and new environments and coaching staffs and how things are done. I’m sure it’s been a long year for him. He’s got a high ceiling. He can do a lot of things in baseball and impact the game on both sides.”
Gardner was also pleased with the performances of prospects Jordan (2.95 ERA in 19 starts) and corner infielder Matt Skole (who hit .234 with 20 home runs between Class AA Harrisburg and Syracuse, but finished strong at Class AAA). He was also happy with how starting prospect Cole (3.41 ERA in 21 games) finished the season after a slow start.
“He got better and was able to command the ball better,” Gardner said. “The key for him was his breaking ball. He’s always had good change-up. It was really encouraging to see him get back to what we saw last year.”