PHOENIX – Jayson Werth understands his role with the Washington Nationals. He has opinions, and no matter how much weight they carry inside the clubhouse, they may not matter to the front office. That did not prevent him from expressing one Saturday evening about the most pressing topic of the Nationals’ offseason.
If Werth could pick the Nationals’ next manager, he would start — no matter if it may seem far-fetched — with the biggest name possible: Cal Ripken Jr., the baseball legend whom Werth played in the same organization with at the start of his professional career as a Baltimore Orioles farmhand.
“He would be my No. 1 choice,” Werth said.
The Nationals’ season inched closer to the end Saturday night with their 2-0 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. Dan Haren ended his seesaw season — and likely his Washinton tenure — with seven scoreless, four-hit innings. With a day left in his managerial tenure, Davey Johnson ensured his career record will finish at least 300 wins above .500, the bizarre goal he set this week. Denard Span smacked his league-leading 11th triple, and Chad Tracy filled in for Adam LaRoche with his fourth homer of the season.
One more game remains, but the business of the offseason beckons. “Job No. 1,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said, will be choosing their next manager. No decision will be more elemental. It will help dictate the shape of their winter, the success of next season and the course of their future.
The search will begin Sunday at around 7 p.m. on the East Coast, right around the time the final pitch of the Nationals’ underachieving season is thrown. Rizzo betrayed nothing about his approach to picking Johnson’s successor. “We’re not going to discuss the manager search until the season is over,” he said.
Still, possible candidates surfaced in speculation around the league and in the Nationals’ clubhouse. Arizona Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams has ties to Rizzo. Nationals bench coach and organization staple Randy Knorr has emerged as a clubhouse favorite. Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Tyler Clippard and Ryan Zimmerman have all endorsed him.
“I’d like to have Randy just as much,” Werth said. “I think Randy makes more sense than anybody.”
Werth understood that Knorr would be a more logical fit. Ripken already has a full life that he finds enriching and includes a baseball business empire that has made him wealthy beyond the salary he made as a player. He broadcasts for TBS. He runs a charity in his father’s name.
But Ripken seems more open to returning to baseball now than ever. If a team called, he would listen. He may be hesitant to accept a position from a team other the Orioles, but with his youngest son now off to college, Ripken has shown more public openness to a position inside the game.
“When you’re around the baseball environment, when you’re here, it’s your peaceful place,” Ripken said in an interview in July. “It’s what you grew up knowing. There’s some side of me that would want to test what you know at the big league level.”
Werth made clear he has yet to speak with ownership or the front office about their plans for next season.
“I haven’t had those conversations with really anybody,” Werth said. “I know nothing about the direction in that regards. I have my own opinions, but I’m going to hold on to those until after the season.”
Rizzo indicated he will listen to Johnson, who will become a senior advisor at the end of the year. “Of course we will,” Rizzo said. “It’d be a resource I’d be foolish not to tap into.” But he will not be as open to feedback from players.
“I don’t think that’s a place for the players to dabble in,” Rizzo said. “It’s an organizational decision, and it’s got to be an organizational fit.”
Werth has been an influential figure since he signed a seven-year, $126 million contract before the 2011 season. He understood his voice may not be heard in the decision to choose the next manager, but he wanted to have a say.
“I would hope,” Werth said. “Not only am I going to be here, but I’ve got the most experience playing on the team. I would think my opinion matters. But I know that it doesn’t. I know better than to think that it does. I really don’t have a sense of what the organization is thinking. It doesn’t seem like the search has started. I think once the season ends, you get a sense of who the candidates are.”
Once the Nationals decide on a manager, Rizzo and his staff can move to the rest of their offseason tasks. After watching the Nationals reel off a 31-15 stretch since mid-August, he believes the core should remain largely intact — but he would not rule out any moves.
“We’re going to look to obviously better ourselves in any way we can,” Rizzo said. “But just looking at an overview, we’ll probably look to improve the bullpen, see if we can improve the bench a little bit. And any other way that we can improve the everyday lineup, if there’s any way we can do that, we’ll certainly look into that also.”
The Nationals may look to secure Zimmermann and Desmond, two homegrown players who have two seasons left before they reach free agency. The Nationals have broached the idea of a contract with both players before, and it could happen again this winter.
“Desi is one of our core players,” Rizzo said. “He’s one of our leaders on the team. If there’s a deal out there that we can get done that keeps him here for the long term, it would be certainly up there on the priority list. It’s going to be a deal that would have to work for both parties.”
Zimmermann is “one of our own,” Rizzo said. “We drafted, developed and signed him. He’s one of the really good pitchers in the league. We’d certainly like to keep him on our team.”
Nats notes: Left-hander Gio Gonzalez will start Sunday’s season finale. He called pitching Johnson’s last game “truly an honor.” . . . LaRoche sat Saturday night, and will sit again Sunday, with biceps tendinitis.