Oct 31, 2013, 11:25 AM EDT
Updated at 1:25 p.m.
Mike Rizzo had known Matt Williams for roughly 14 years and for much of that time had considered the All-Star third baseman a “manager-in-training.”
But Rizzo insists he didn’t settle on Williams as the Nationals’ new manager until after the 47-year-old Diamondbacks coach formally interviewed for the job earlier this month and impressed him (and ownership) beyond expectations.
“A lot of the candidates we interviewed, I had a relationship with. Matt was one of them,” Rizzo said today after the Nationals officially announced Williams’ hiring. “I’ve known him for a long time. We were together in Arizona, obviously. But I wouldn’t consider him, going into this, a favorite. I knew a lot of the candidates, and … they were all terrific interviews and the process went great. It was a very difficult decision. But Matt, we felt, possessed all the characteristics of a successful manager and a guy that we think could take us to the next level.”
Williams will be tasked with elevating a Nationals club that won its first NL East title in 2012 but stumbled to an 86-76 record in Davey Johnson’s final year as manager to a World Series champion. Despite no previous managerial experience beyond a short stint last year in the Arizona Fall League, Rizzo is confident Williams is the right man for the job, selecting him from a pool of five finalists that included two strong in-house candidates and two intriguing external possibilities.
All five candidates — the others were Nationals coaches Randy Knorr and Trent Jewett, Blue Jays coach DeMarlo Hale and Padres special assistant Brad Ausmus — interviewed for the job earlier this month. Rizzo made his decision late last week, but the club couldn’t formally announce anything until after completion of the World Series, per Major League Baseball’s instructions. Once the Red Sox finished off the Cardinals in Game 6 Wednesday night, the Nationals were able to proceed with their announcement.
Williams will be introduced at 2 p.m. Friday during a news conference at Nationals Park.
“I feel privileged and honored to be a part of this team,” he said in a statement. “It’s a wonderful group of guys and a great organization. I’m simply here to help take us to the next level.”
A five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove third baseman, Williams was known as one of the game’s most-intense competitors during his playing days but has mellowed somewhat since becoming a Diamondbacks coach in 2010. (He spent the last three seasons as their third base coach.) His relationship with Rizzo, though, dates back to 1999, when he played for Arizona and Rizzo served as the club’s scouting director.
Rizzo, who left the Diamondbacks to join the Nationals’ front office in 2006 and then ascended to the GM position in 2009, kept tabs on Williams throughout but truly became convinced he deserved the manager’s job during this month’s interview.
“What struck me about Matt Williams that maybe I didn’t realize as much is: He’s extremely intellectual,” Rizzo said. “He’s extremely articulate. He communicates in a manner that is extremely effective. His knowledge of our organization — of our roster and even our minor league system — was impeccable. He was extremely prepared, extremely articulate in his interview process. I think that was something that went into the selection process.”
Rizzo said Williams’ hiring was a joint decision made with ownership, which was involved throughout the interview process.
“Matt has a wealth of knowledge and experience as a former player and coach,” managing principal owner Ted Lerner said in a statement. “But what most impresses us is his ability to understand and ably communicate situations and strategies in a disciplined, forthright manner. We think he is the right leader for a Washington Nationals team ready to compete for a World Series championship.”
Among the topics Williams had to address with the Nationals before his hiring was his past connection to performance enhancing drugs. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2007 that Williams bought $11,600 worth of steroids and human growth hormone from a Florida clinic in 2002, while he still played for the Diamondbacks. He was named later that year in the Mitchell Report, MLB’s official investigation of PED use in the sport.
Williams, who acknowledged at the time he tried HGH to recover from an ankle injury, is the first admitted PED user to become a big-league manager.
“In the interview process, we asked about it,” Rizzo said. “As you know, we’re big on accountability here. To me, the three most important aspects are accountability, performance and excellence. That’s something that we strive for here with the Nationals. Matt was extremely candid about the Mitchell Report and owned up to it. He certainly showed accountability for it. He wants to only be judged by his coaching and managing going forward.”
As is the case for most first-time managers, Williams won’t be bringing in an entire staff of coaches familiar to him. Rizzo said most of the Nationals’ 2013 staff will return next season, though he couldn’t announce anything yet. All members of the current staff have contracts that expire at the end of the night.
Knorr, the man who appeared to be Williams’ strongest competition for the job and was openly championed by a majority of the Nationals’ clubhouse and Johnson himself, is likely to return as bench coach.
“I’ve had a lot of these players and would love to be here when we play in the World Series,” Knorr said last week after learning he wasn’t getting the managerial job.
Steve McCatty, who has served as the Nationals’ pitching coach since 2009 and survived two previous managerial changes, also is expected to return. Rick Schu, who took over as hitting coach in July and previously worked with Williams in Arizona, figures to remain as well.
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