For the better part of the past two years, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson presented a unified front. Two lifelong baseball men, working together for the betterment of one of the game’s up-and-coming franchises.
Most of that has not changed. Johnson and Rizzo still talk daily, whether around the batting cage or elsewhere. But Johnson, who openly disagreed with Rizzo’s decision to fire hitting coach Rick Eckstein 2 1/2 weeks ago, is on his way out.
He’s retiring or leaving as part of a mutual agreement — or, as he said with a laugh last week, being “run out of here.” Either way, the end result will be the same: The Nationals will hire a new manager, and the process of Johnson being involved in their decisions will, eventually, cease.
That fact was one of the guiding impetuses behind the Lerner family promoting Rizzo to president of baseball operations and extending his contract last week.
“It’s important for the manager to know who’s going to be his boss,” Rizzo said after signing the extension. “I think it was a big part of the managerial decision.”
So who, then, will be on the list of candidates that Rizzo has surely begun assembling in his mind to replace the only manager ever to lead a Nationals team to a winning record?
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Multiple people in baseball, when asked about managerial changes in general, noted that organizations often choose someone who brings a contrasting personality and style to the job than his predecessor.
Johnson is laid back. He doesn’t hold team meetings, opting for private conversations. He prefers to let his actions speak, giving players their confidence boosts through putting them in the lineup, or letting them pitch out of a jam in the seventh inning, or using them in a tight spot in relief. He has few qualms about divulging his opinions to the media.
Through discussions with industry and team sources, four possible names emerged as possibilities for when the Nationals begin their managerial search in earnest: Arizona Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams, Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, Nationals third base coach Trent Jewett and Houston Astros manager Bo Porter.
They all operate differently than Johnson. They are younger, and some have more outward fire than the 70-year-old Johnson often projects.
Williams, known as a fierce competitor during his playing and coaching career, played for the Diamondbacks toward the end of his 17-year career, overlapping with Rizzo’s tenure as Arizona’s scouting director.
Knorr has managed in the Nationals’ system since they came into existence, with a direct hand in the development of nearly a third of the team’s current 40-man roster. Those who have come through his tutelage rave about Knorr’s no-nonsense style. It was on display two weeks ago when Knorr, managing after Johnson was ejected, pulled closer Rafael Soriano as he was in the process of flitting away a game in a non-save situation.
“Randy is a guy that I’ve had great respect for for a long time,” Rizzo said. “I think that he’s certainly a manager candidate and he has a lot of manager capabilities. We love having him on the staff. He’s certainly a manager-caliber bench coach at this point.”
Jewett managed 17 years in the minor leagues sandwiched around two-plus seasons as a coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates before joining the Nationals’ major league staff in 2011. He is extremely well-respected within the Nationals’ clubhouse.
And then there’s Porter, the first-year Astros manager who spent the previous two seasons as the Nationals’ third base coach and was thought to be a possible Johnson successor. Porter is well-regarded by the Lerner family, as well as Rizzo and Johnson, but freeing him from a multiyear deal in Houston likely would require a trade with the Astros.
When the Nationals brought Johnson on in 2011, it was with the idea that he would have a hand in picking his successor. The manner in which the Nationals’ season ends, and what his relationship is with the organization at that time, will likely decide whether that is indeed the case.
If he is, he perhaps provided a glimpse into who his choice would be a few weeks ago.
“Somebody asked me, ‘What is the criteria for a big league manager?’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Ideal is to manage in your system so you know the talent in the system. That’s the criteria.’ Some guys who were coaches who never managed took offense to what I said. But I was talking about the ideal guy.”
Rizzo will have at least six more weeks to ponder his candidates a bit more before beginning the interview process before he tips his hand on who he thinks the ideal candidate is. Eventually, we’ll see how his criteria align with Johnson’s.