LOVERRO: Nats’ hiring of Matt Williams sends message that Rizzo, not players, makes the call

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ANALYSIS/OPINION

I guess the Washington Nationals clubhouse lost the election for their next manager.

Numerous accounts have the Nationals hiring Arizona Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams as their new manager, which means they are passing over bench coach Randy Knorr, who clearly was the preferred choice of the players.

If you are looking for signs of hope, this is one of them – the players don’t make the decisions. Nationals general manager and president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo does, and this one may be the most important of his tenure so far.

This decision will determine whether the Nationals will fulfill the expectation of being a perennial playoff team or wind up a franchise defined by the Stephen Strasburg shutdown and missed opportunities.

Someone was going to hire Matt Williams to manage their ball club. He was considered one of the candidates in waiting. Speculation was that if Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson would consider going back home to Detroit to take the Tigers jobs after Jim Leyland announced his retirement, Williams would move into the Diamondbacks managing job. So he was going to manage somewhere at some point.

He wound up in the place where he was most wanted – Washington. I think Williams was Rizzo’s choice all along, someone he had his eye on for some time to replace Davey Johnson, who stepped down at the end of this season. Rizzo has known Williams since the days they were both together in Arizona, and knows very well what Williams brings to the dugout and the clubhouse.

Whatever he brings, it won’t be as good as what they had for the past two seasons. Davey Johnson is one of the best managers of his time, and it is a shame that whatever dysfunctional forces were at work within the Nationals ownership group, they resulted in this sham before the season began that Johnson had signed a one-year contract extension because it was a “mutual” decision that he would retire at the end of the year.

If the Nationals owners had been willing to give Johnson a two-year contract extension, he would have stayed. I only bring this up because Matt Williams as a rookie manager won’t be as good as Johnson would have been with this team that, after a disappointing season that failed to make the postseason, seems poised to become a championship contender. This team didn’t fail because of Johnson, and, if anything, he kept them together during their struggles to compete for the postseason at the end of the year.

Williams may be able to do the same thing. Let’s see how he deals with the pressures of an offense that sometimes can disappear for long stretches of time.

It appears that Knorr will remains with the Nationals as a bench coach, so if you do the math, now the Nationals have both Williams and Knorr in the dugout. The days of a new manager cleaning house and bringing in all his own coaches as standard operating procedure are gone, particularly for a rookie manager. I’d be surprised if much of the Nationals coaching staff doesn’t stay intact, which will help Williams.

Could Knorr have been the guy? Probably. He is a smart guy who will probably manage somewhere in the future. But Williams has the major league baseball resume – a five-time All Star who hit 378 career home runs and has one World Series ring with the 2001 Diamondbacks – which helps when you are confronting players in the clubhouse. Players respect the resume.

The expectations are that Williams will confront the players in the clubhouse. One of his nicknames Is “The Big Marine,” and he has a reputation of a tough guy. But this isn’t football. No matter how frustrating a team may be playing, you can’t coach them up to win. Fans hate this – especially in a football town – but the tough guy routine doesn’t usually work over a 162 game season.

The two most important things a manager does is manage the personalities on the roster, and the pitching – particularly the bullpen. Several former players and coaches have told me that nobody managed a bullpen better than Johnson, who managed it for a season and refused to set it on fire to win a game. Again, this isn’t football.

Williams may have some ideas of how to handle both of those components. And he’ll likely get help from the Nationals coaching staff. Given the choices, I think Williams was worth a shot. But he has a tough act to follow.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com

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