LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Matt Williams has been the Nationals’ manager for six weeks and the heavy lifting has already begun.
The first 25 days of spring training are already accounted for, with schedules set down to the minute from fielding drills to batting practice. But as even Williams admits, a manager can plan all he wants. That’s just the skeleton outline of his preparations.
Now comes the hard part: Staffing the camp, figuring out which players will be there and how best to prepare them for the rigors of a regular season. The Nats under Williams will have a “heavier” camp than in recent years with about 60 players invited. They’ll go through a shorter, rapid-fire schedule designed to allow players to work on individual skills later in the day.
It’s all part of the planning process ongoing at Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings at the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Disney World. Williams has been part of the event before, but only as an advisor or a coach with his old team, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Now, he’s spending his time learning about Washington’s organization from top to bottom — the executives, the scouts, the behind-the-scenes folks who make the whole thing run. When the players step onto the field in Viera, Fla., for spring training in late February, it will be Williams‘ show. But his job this week is to blend into an organization that hasn’t changed all that much from recent seasons.
“I’m the new dude, yeah. I have tried to let everybody know that,” Williams said. “Listen, I’m here to learn, as well. So I can’t sit here in front of you [and say] that I’ve got 20 years experience, because I don’t. I need to learn from them. We sit in that suite up there and our scouting staff has hundreds of years of experience in the game.”
And in that suite, the Nats’ decision-makers are figuring out what kind of team they want to field in 2014 and how the pieces fit. They know the starting rotation is strong, they know the bullpen is not yet a finished product and that another bench bat is needed.
As Williams spoke Tuesday afternoon with reporters in a hotel ballroom, Mark Weidemaier, his new defensive coach, was at that very moment meeting with Washington’s advance scouts. They were getting to know each other, yes. But they were also crafting the way they will organize the data that, in theory, will provide players with the necessary information to make their lives easier once they are in uniform again.
It’s a process that had to begin right away. Williams couldn’t afford to wait until spring training to figure it all out. And so instead of working the lobby downstairs or hanging by the pool, Williams and Washington’s coaches and staff members spent long hours over two days talking through everything from the generalities of baseball to specific players on the roster to minor leaguers who are ready to contribute in some way to what the organization hopes is a second playoff appearance in three years.
“Matt has really been immersed in with the guys,” Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s a baseball guy. We’re a baseball shop. He seems to be completely comfortable in the room there, and makes his opinions known. He’s got his opinions, and then he’ll take a step back and listen, and we formulate the answer accordingly.”
Williams has been busy meeting his players, too. He has contacted seven or eight so far. He spent an hour talking baseball with outfielder Jayson Werth in the outfielder’s suburban Virginia home last month. Williams met Werth and Ian Desmond at his introductory press conference at Nationals Park on Nov. 1. He spent time with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman last week in Washington and saw first baseman Adam LaRoche there, too.
“What I’ve learned is that this organization is very concerned with winning,” Williams said. “There are high expectations and we all embrace that. You don’t get those high expectations unless you have a team that’s willing to fulfill them — or capable of fulfilling them. All the pressure that comes along with that is a very good thing. We’re embracing that and I’m excited about that.”