Oct 25, 2013, 5:07 PM EST
Major-league general managers only get so many opportunities to hire a new manager, even fewer opportunities to conduct a managerial search with a completely clean slate.
So when presented with such a scenario, Mike Rizzo did what almost any GM would have done: He went with the guy he’s always believed would make a great manager. Even though that guy is short on experience and has no connection to the Nationals aside from his longstanding relationship with Rizzo.
Matt Williams was going to be hired to manage a big-league club one of these days. Rizzo wanted to make sure it was his.
This isn’t, technically speaking, Rizzo’s first managerial hire. He already went through this process twice before with the Nationals, both in 2009 and 2011. But those circumstances bore little-to-no resemblance to this one.
In each of those previous cases, the Nationals faced an in-season managerial change, followed by an interim replacement who earned the right to return the following year in a permanent capacity: Jim Riggleman in 2009, Davey Johnson in 2011.
This time, Rizzo had the freedom to go in any direction he liked, in the wake of Johnson’s long-planned departure. There were three distinct paths he could take:
1. Promote from within, elevating either Randy Knorr or Trent Jewett from the current coaching staff to the top position, touting the allure of continuity and preference from within the clubhouse.
2. Find an experienced, well-known outsider to take over a team that won a division title in 2012, stumbled in 2013 but will be expected to contend for a World Series title for the next several years.
3. Find baseball’s next up-and-comer, someone who would be sought by other organizations but would jump at this opportunity before anyone else could snatch him up.
Option No. 1 was appealing. Knorr had as strong a case as anyone for the job, and he had overwhelming support from Nationals players and even Johnson himself. But Rizzo made it clear at season’s end he wouldn’t be basing this decision on the preference of his employees.
“I don’t think that’s a place for the players to dabble in,” he said during the season’s final weekend. “It’s an organizational decision, and it’s got to be an organizational fit.”
Perhaps the promotion of Knorr to manager also would have been tantamount to an endorsement from Rizzo that the just-completed season was acceptable in the big picture, as opposed to the disappointment it most certainly was. One of the Nationals’ problems this year was the lack of urgency expressed within the clubhouse when things weren’t going well through the season’s first half. Perhaps a hiring-from-within would have continued that theme.
Option No. 2 never really came into play. There simply weren’t any logical, experienced candidates in the mix. Not with Don Mattingly staying in Los Angeles. Not with Joe Girardi staying in New York. (And, no, Cal Ripken Jr. was never a serious candidate for the job, despite the not-so-subtle hints the Iron Man dropped along the way.)
Option No. 3 thus stood out as the most appealing choice, especially when considering Williams’ longstanding ties to Rizzo.
This is a name who had been linked to the job for months, an obvious Rizzo confidant who seemed likely to be among the leading candidates all along. Williams is well-respected throughout baseball circles, he’s known for being fiercely loyal to his players while also willing to call a guy out if needed. And he clearly has the kind of relationship you’d want from a manager and his GM.
Is the lack of experience a concern? Sure. But as stated above, there really weren’t any strong candidates with big-league managing experience, so it would’ve been a concern no matter who was hired.
Besides, this is the recent trend across baseball. Look at some of the most recent managerial hires in the sport: Jon Farrell, Mike Matheny, Mike Redmond, Bryan Price, Bo Porter, Robin Ventura. All relatively young guys with little previous experience.
What’s the most important relationship in baseball right now? You could certainly argue it’s between GM and manager. Those two must be in sync, sending the same message throughout the organization.
There’s no doubting the relationship between Rizzo and Williams. These two were made for each other.
It almost seemed a matter of when, not if, they’d ever work together again.
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