Oct 1, 2013, 6:00 AM EST
The Nationals are transitioning into offseason mode, and so are we. Over the next five days, we’ll run through the five biggest storylines of the winter for this club, beginning today with the No. 1 storyline: The search for a new manager to replace Davey Johnson…
Mike Rizzo is no dummy. He knows what needs to be his first priority this offseason.
“First of all, after the season we’re going to start the search for a manager,” Rizzo said Saturday from the dugout at Chase Field in Phoenix. “I think that’s probably job No. 1, because a manager is going to have input on what we do with the roster construction and that type of thing.”
This isn’t the first time Rizzo has found himself selecting a new skipper. He has held the title of Nationals general manager for less than five years, but he already is conducting his third managerial search.
Each featured a unique set of circumstances.
After firing Manny Acta during the 2009 All-Star break, Rizzo promoted bench coach Jim Riggleman to interim manager. After the season ended, he conducted a formal search for a permanent replacement, but Riggleman all along appeared the likely choice and ultimately was given the job full-time.
Two years later, Rizzo found himself scrambling for a skipper after Riggleman abruptly resigned over a contract dispute after his team won for the 10th time in 11 games. With limited time to find a suitable replacement, he summoned Davey Johnson out of the organization and brought him back to a big-league dugout for the first time in 11 years. And after a strong finish to the season, Johnson clearly was the choice to return the following year.
Now Rizzo again finds himself in need of a manager, with the 70-year-old Johnson departing (though not retiring) and leaving behind a talent-laden club that has every reason to believe it can contend for a World Series title in 2014.
It’s a bit of an unusual scenario. Rarely does a team that looks this good on paper need a new manager, and that should make this among the most-attractive openings in baseball. But if indications to this point are accurate, there may not be very names in the mix for this high-profile job.
Rizzo declined to discuss any aspect of the managerial hiring process during his season wrap-up media session on Saturday, but a handful of names have already emerged as the likeliest candidates. And atop that list is a man who has the overwhelming support of the Nationals’ clubhouse: bench coach Randy Knorr.
Knorr, 44, has spent the last nine seasons as either a manager in the Nationals’ farm system or as a member of their big-league coaching staff. He has guided many of the organization’s top prospects through the minor leagues and over the last two years was a key advocate for them as Johnson’s right-hand man.
Knorr is upbeat and folksy, but he’s also not afraid to get in a player’s face when necessary, and in the few opportunities he had to fill-in for Johnson, he showed he’s willing to make bold decisions (ie. pulling closer Rafael Soriano with the lead still intact in the ninth inning).
Because of all that, players wholeheartedly endorse Knorr for a promotion.
“For me to say anybody else but Randy would be a lie,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who first played for Knorr as a 19-year-old at low-Class A Savannah in 2005. “That’s who I want to see as the manager of this ballclub. With that being said, I wouldn’t ever doubt any move that Mike Rizzo made. … He’s done an unbelievable job, and I would respect anybody that he brought in. I would respect his decision, but I as a player think Randy’s probably the best fit for us.”
Knorr may have the support of the clubhouse, but Rizzo made it clear that won’t play a role in this search.
“I don’t think that’s a place for the players to dabble in,” he said. “It’s an organizational decision, and it’s got to be an organizational fit.”
Upon naming Johnson the full-time manager after the 2011 season, Rizzo did suggest he preferred to develop the club’s next skipper from within. He lost one candidate last winter when third base coach Bo Porter left to become Astros manager, but there are other in-house possibilities besides Knorr. Third base coach Trent Jewett has long been considered a potential manager and remains popular with players. Class AAA skipper Tony Beasley, who was with the big-league club in September, also has aspirations of moving up a level.
Rizzo isn’t necessarily committed to an in-house hire, though, and he is expected to interview candidates from other organizations.
At the top of that list is Matt Williams, the Diamondbacks’ third base coach who has long been a favorite of Rizzo. The two were together in Arizona a decade ago, when Williams was a veteran leader on the 2001 World Series champion club that also boasted Rizzo as scouting director.
Williams declined to talk publicly about the job when approached over the weekend during the Nationals’ series with the Diamondbacks, but his interest in the position is no secret. The former big-league infielder would bring credibility both as an accomplished player from the 1990s and as a calm-but-forceful leader who would instantly command respect of his clubhouse.
Those candidates all bring something to the table, but none brings prior experience as a major-league manager. And that could be something Rizzo values, especially for a team that believes it should contend for a championship in 2014.
Problem is, there aren’t many available candidates out there who have done the job before. Rizzo might have had some interest in Ron Gardenhire, but the Twins announced Monday they’ve signed their longtime manager to a new, two-year contract, taking him off the board.
Joe Girardi could be available, and he certainly would bring a wealth of experience to the table, having managed the Yankees the last six seasons. Girardi’s contract is up, but New York is expected to make a major push to keep him. The Cubs, who fired Dale Sveum on Monday, also will be aggressive in pursuing the former catcher, a Chicago native who went to Northwestern.
The only way the Nationals are going to land Girardi is to offer him some serious money; he’s reportedly seeking a significant raise from his current $3 million salary with the Yankees. Nats ownership might well balk at a figure that high.
So, who else does that leave? The only other experienced managers not currently employed are Tony La Russa and Charlie Manuel. Neither has expressed much interest in returning to the dugout at this stage of his life.
What about Cal Ripken Jr.? The Hall of Famer has dropped hints lately he’d be interested in managing, and he’d immediately become the most iconic skipper in baseball. But those who know Ripken well say his ultimate career plans still lie in running an entire organization as GM or team president, not necessarily as manager. He would also command an incredibly high salary, one that Nationals ownership would probably deem too expensive.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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