The Nationals have 33 games to show what this season ultimately has come down to. Not the division (long gone). Not the wild card (unless the Reds completely implode, an 81 / 2-game deficit is too much to make up). It’s not sexy and it certainly doesn’t include champagne, but as they have five straight wins entering Sunday, the season’s final month-and-change may simply be about their next manager.
Even before the disappointment of this season, Mike Rizzo knew he would have to make this move. Davey Johnson, 70, has repeatedly said this would be his last season as the Nationals manager.
Rizzo has every reason to go outside the organization after the mass underachievement of a club that wilted under World Series aspirations.
There are good names available like Matt Williams and Jay Bell, both of whom worked with Rizzo in Arizona. Charlie Manuel was just let go by the Phillies. He might seem like your average retread, but at 69 he is still as competitive and feisty as anyone in baseball.
Don Mattingly’s bench coach, Trey Hillman, is most likely going to be contacted by clubs in October. And there is no bigger name than Cal Ripken Jr., who indicated this month he hasn’t ruled out working in a Major League dugout.
But before the Nationals’ general manager makes his decision, he needs to hear out some of his players. Many of them want to stay in-house. Many prefer Randy Knorr, Davey Johnson’s bench coach for the past two years. Knorr has managed six seasons in the club’s minor league system since 2005. They also don’t want to see Trent Jewett, the team’s third base coach, go anywhere.
Now, you’re probably thinking, Why do underachieving players scrapping for a .500 season have any say in their next manager?
Still, they make good points:
“Having a guy from within the organization would be good, a guy that knows all the players,” Jordan Zimmermann said recently. “Instead of bringing a guy in, and that guy’s got to start learning what everyone likes to do. If you bring a guy in that’s already here, he knows what the players like to do before a game, stuff like that.”
Added Tyler Clippard, the team’s most consistent reliever this season: “It’s one of the things where I’m glad it’s not my decision. But, at the same time, I think it’s best if you have a guy that knows the ins and outs of the organization and knows what we’re trying to do. I think that helps.
“I love Randy Knorr. I love Trent. I love Cat [pitching coach Steve McCatty] and Schu [hitting coach Rick Schu]. It would definitely be an easier transition if somebody is part of the group, part of the organization — and has been for a long time.”
Ryan Zimmerman was more open to bringing in a new voice. But the nine-year veteran also dismissed the notion that a new manager is going to be a miracle worker on a team that won 98 games a year ago.
“Obviously all of us are familiar with those guys,” Zimmerman said. “More than that, even when [hitting coach] Rick [Eckstein] got fired, I’ve said the failures of this team, us not playing good, has nothing to do with the coaches in that room. They give us everything we need to succeed. It’s up to us to go out in the field and do it.
“Doesn’t matter if you have a Hall-of-Fame manager or a first-year manager, if whoever we have next year does as much as they do, then we’re going to be in a good position. I think that’s what fans don’t really understand is, the manager can only do so much.”
Zim went on for a while before he finally settled on Knorr and Jewett.
“That group in there, they work well together, they get along with the players for the most part, which I think is important,” he said. “You have to be able to get along with them and at the same time be able to be honest with them and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’ Or, ‘This is what we need to do.’ As far as that goes, that would be helpful having something from within.
“Then again, you go out and get someone from outside and bring in a sort of new mentality, a new way to look at things — that can be good too.
“It’s tough. It’s not really my position to do that. It’s why a lot of guys don’t feel comfortable talking about it. Being around Randy and Trent, those guys have both managed a bunch in the minor leagues. I think both of those guys would be great.”
Rizzo has understandably stayed mum on the pending move until this season is over. But he’s made it clear in the past how important continuity and creating a “Nationals Way” is during his stewardship of the club.
If the Nationals really want the continuity and camaraderie of much of Johnson’s staff to remain, if they want to bolster Knorr’s shot at the job, there is really only one way: show they can still play at an extremely high level the last 33 games.
If they really want to pay homage to the brief but memorable Davey Era, they can try and save some of his staff their jobs the next month and ensure that Rizzo’s goal of creating a stable, consistent, winning culture is maintained.
He may shake things up anyway. But if playing their best baseball late doesn’t result in an improbable run toward a wild card, at least they give some of the franchise’s foundation the past decade a fighting shot at remaining with the Nationals.
“To see him go is going to be heartbreaking,” Gio Gonzalez said of Davey’s impending retirement. “At the end of the day, Riz knows who he’s getting. He’s done a great job picking out who he wants and keeping this team together. I’m pretty sure the outcome of our next manager is in good hands.
“Be honest with you, I’m a huge fan of Randy Knorr’s. He’s great. He’s been fantastic. He’s one of the most well-liked coaches in this organization. That’s just my opinion, but I’ll leave the higher learning to Mike Rizzo.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise