WASHINGTON -- In describing what he will look for in a manager to replace Matt Williams, Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo might have been pointing out exactly what he felt went wrong with the man he hired two years ago and fired Monday.
“Leadership qualities, knowledge of the game, X’s and O’s are all important. Communication in the clubhouse, communication within the coaching staff, is vital,” Rizzo said during a telephone conference call. “Experience is always helpful. It always adds a layer of expertise to anybody’s resume. We feel that where we’re at in our timetable of winning a championship, we certainly would lean toward someone that has some type of managerial experience, especially at the major league level.”
Williams, of course, did not, but he had a history with Rizzo. And while Williams was voted NL Manager of the Year for his rookie season in 2014, he is now out of a job because the Nationals failed to make the playoffs after entering the season with World Series aspirations.
Rizzo delivered the news to Williams in the Nationals Park manager’s office the morning after Washington finished the regular season barely above .500 at 83-79, seven games behind the New York Mets in the NL East.
“This entire season was a disappointment,” Rizzo said. “It was not our best year. It wasn’t Matt’s best year. It wasn’t my best year. As an organization, it wasn’t our best year.”
In February, the Nationals exercised Williams’ 2016 contract option. But he presided over a 2015 season filled with defeats, discord and a dugout dustup between NL MVP front-runner Bryce Harper and teammate Jonathan Papelbon during a game the day after the team was eliminated from playoff contention.
Williams said he had no idea of the extent of the skirmish until much later in the day. Even though he was, of course, in the dugout at the time, Williams said he hadn’t been aware of exactly what happened -- including that Papelbon grabbed Harper by the throat. None of his players or coaches told him about it right away, and he said he hadn’t asked to know more.
“Not one single incident was the tipping point of making a decision with Matt Williams,” Rizzo said.
The Nationals also said they will not renew the contracts of the seven members of Williams’ staff: bench coach Randy Knorr, pitching coach Steve McCatty, hitting coach Rick Schu, third base coach Bobby Henley, first base coach Tony Tarasco, bullpen coach Matt LeCroy, and defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier.
Knorr, a candidate for manager when Williams was hired, could be considered for that post again, Rizzo said.
“We’re going to bring in a group of people with diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences and diverse skill sets. And I think that’s something we did not do last time,” Rizzo said. “Last time we brought in managing candidates with little or no managerial experience.”
Williams’ string of open-to-second-guessing bullpen choices began last year during Washington’s NL Division Series loss to San Francisco. He also was unable to overcome the roster’s long list of injuries, including to half of the everyday lineup for stretches: Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Denard Span. The ideal lineup was available for only two games all season.
“We had some things that went sideways and we had a whole bunch of injuries,” Williams said Sunday, “and not much you can do about that except adjust and move on.”
His departure begins an offseason of significant change for a team that won division titles in 2012 and 2014 but could not win a playoff series.
Shortstop Ian Desmond, right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, and center fielder Span are expected to leave via free agency, while reliever Drew Storen could get traded after losing the closer’s job to Papelbon.
“There was a lot more trials and tribulations this year,” Rizzo said. “The roster that we had in the winter here and going into spring training was a roster that many, many people felt was a championship roster.”