Handicapping the field as Nats prep for Johnson’s exit as skipper

Davey Johnson’s playful “World Series of bust” boast from back in spring training seems eons ago. As the Nationals try to pull off an impossible comeback and work their way back into contention for a National League wild card berth, there are already rumblings about possible successors for their lame-duck manager.

Johnson announced before the season that 2013 would be his last at the helm of the Nationals. Johnson clearly didn’t envision a departure so full of disappointment and frustration. He also figured he’d turn over the managerial reins to his trusty bench coach, manager-in-waiting Randy Knorr, creating a smooth organizational transition.

While that might still happen, it’s no sure thing. Consequently, speculation has already begun about who will manage the Nats in 2014, inheriting a ballclub crafted to compete for a title and eager to wipe away the bitterness of a promising season that didn’t fulfill expectations.

That will leave general manager Mike Rizzo and team ownership with a major task atop their offseason to-do list: Choose Johnson’s successor, hopefully early enough that he’ll have time to offer input on the team’s moves heading into the winter meetings.

Make no mistake - this is just as big a decision as the one Rizzo faced when Jim Riggleman resigned in June 2011, upset at the GM’s refusal to discuss an extension of his one-year deal. Just as he entrusted a burgeoning team to one of his loyal lieutenants - Johnson was serving as a special adviser to the GM - this managerial change will be one of the critical decisions of Rizzo’s tenure.

There’s no less pressure than he faced when the clock was ticking with draft choices Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper yet to sign. It’s a possible watershed moment for a team that thinks of this year’s struggles as an aberration, not an obstacle to be overcome.

So what does Rizzo do? Who will manage the Nats in 2014? Rather than handicap the field by individuals, let’s look at the kind of candidates Rizzo will pore over, a process that’s likely been going on for some time behind closed doors on South Capitol Street.

In-house candidates: Had Bo Porter opted to stay in D.C. and turn down the Astros’ overtures during last year’s playoffs, he might have been the heir apparent. The Nats like his fiery attitude and attention to detail. Cancel any thoughts that Rizzo might work out one of those manager-for-player trades to reacquire Porter’s services. That ship has sailed. That leaves Knorr as the likely choice on the current staff, and he has points working in his favor. He’s a former major league catcher, so he sees the game from that perspective. He’s also skippered at four levels in the Nats’ farm system, winning a title at Single-A Potomac in 2008. He’s been Johnson’s bench coach for two seasons and did a previous turn as bullpen coach. Knorr isn’t vocal, but he’s no pushover, either. A major league managerial job would be the next likely progression and he’s already a known quantity. So is third base coach Trent Jewett, in his third season on the Nats staff. He managed at Potomac in 2009 and Triple-A Syracuse in 2010, with 15 seasons at the helm of Pirates farm teams (11 at Triple-A) before that. Syracuse manager Tony Beasley is a long shot here, as the Nats value his role as a teacher.

Winners with major league experience: Charlie Manuel took the Phillies to the World Series twice, and finally parted ways with the club last month, unable to win with the aging roster he’d been saddled with. He’s expressed some interest in the Washington job, but he turns 70 in January and the Nats may prefer a younger candidate. But don’t be surprised if he’s given a courtesy interview. It’s hard to handicap the guys who may be out of jobs after the season because it’s been an unusually stable campaign with Manuel the lone in-season casualty. Not everyone is under contract for 2014, however, and it would be interesting to see if Joe Girardi departs the Yankees when his contract expires after the season. Girardi has succeeded in Miami (with minimal resources) and New York (with maximum finances), and he’ll be in demand if he decides the Yankees are headed in the wrong direction with a roster full of brittle superstars in decline, an opening at closer and a farm system bereft of top prospects ready to contribute. This much is sure: any manager with experience who has produced positive results will be linked to the opening in D.C. (save maybe for Angels skipper Mike Scioscia, who is signed to a $50 million deal that runs through 2018 and is on shaky ground, along with general manager Jerry Dipoto; if Scioscia gets the boot, there’s no financial incentive for him to stump for a job right away). Ozzie Guillen, anyone?

The recycling bin: There are always guys who have some major league experience who have not produced good results, and while some of them will no doubt be linked to Rizzo’s search, they really aren’t legitimate candidates. Heck, Riggleman is back in Triple-A skippering the Reds’ farm team in Louisville, Kent. You think Bobby Valentine wouldn’t ditch his administrative gig at Sacred Heart for another shot at the majors? Most of these guys are fillers in the interview process, familiar names called in to give the process an air of legitimacy - especially if the decision’s already been made. They’re really not part of the discussion here.

The next wave: Many teams have a Porter or Knorr on their staffs, guys who are thought of as future managerial material and only lack an opportunity. It remains to be seen if taking a chance on one of these field boss prospects is in Rizzo’s sights, but he’ll probably consider at least a couple. The name most mentioned that falls into this category is Matt Williams, the former Giants third baseman who is now third base coach for the Diamondbacks. He has history with Rizzo from the GM’s time in Arizona and led the Arizona Fall League’s Salt River Rafters last winter, a team that included Nats prospects. Tom Runnells, the bench coach in Colorado, actually managed the Expos for parts of the 1991 and 1992 seasons; he’s been a guy getting interviews in recent offseasons. So has DeMarlo Hale, currently the bench coach in Toronto. Ditto for Ron Wotus, the Giants bench coach since 1999, and Tim Bogar, a former Red Sox first and third base coach who managed at Double-A Arkansas in the Angels system in 2013. Another interesting name to watch is Tim Wallach, the former Expos third baseman who is now third base coach for the Dodgers. At least a couple of these names will get the call for interviews, assuming the Nats don’t choose an in-house candidate soon after the season ends.

The first-timers: As you may have heard, multiple reports link Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. to the Nats opening. These have gotten a lot of ink for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the notion of a guy who spent his entire career as an Oriole possibly moving south down Route 295. Dream away. While Ripken wants to get back into baseball now that his kids are grown, he really wants to be part of ownership, not in uniform. And do you really think Rizzo needs to hire a rookie to take over a veteran team built to contend? Not saying it can’t happen - who expected Robin Ventura to get the White Sox gig two years ago without any minor or major league managing experience? - but it’s not at all likely. But a Ripken hire sure would add some spice to the Battle of the Beltways.

The unknowns: A major league GM putting together a list of potential managers leaves nothing to chance. If there’s a name that might work, a guy he thinks could succeed in that role, he goes on the list. It may be only cursory consideration, but it’s consideration nonetheless. So don’t be surprised if there’s a darkhorse candidate lurking in the shadows. The way Rizzo likes to control information - not exactly a bad thing, since you don’t want your opponents knowing everything you’re doing - lends credence to the notion of someone unexpected working their way into the mix.

Change of heart?: Could Johnson change his mind, tell Rizzo he didn’t like the way this year ended and work his way back into the conversation? Stranger things have happened, but I don’t see this happening. Johnson seems content to float back into a consultant role. But I think he’ll be an active retiree, not a guy who fades into the sunset and isn’t heard from. Remember, Johnson said several years ago that he was happy as an adviser and that it would take a perfect situation to lure him back to the manager’s office. Clearly, nothing is carved in stone.

Rizzo will probably want a resolution to the managerial vacancy soon after the season ends, perhaps before the World Series is over. Those are some possible scenarios. What kind of manager do you think he should choose? Who do you see as the frontrunner?

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