Looking deeper into the Matt Williams hire

The first, and most significant, task the Nationals had to complete this offseason is all but done.

Matt Williams is in line to become the Nationals’ next manager, something that should become official shortly after the World Series comes to an end.

Not surprisingly, the hire has created quite a discussion among many fans, some of whom like the decision made by the Lerner family and general manager Mike Rizzo, and some of whom wanted to see the Nats go in another direction.

In reality, that was likely to happen regardless of who the Nats chose to replace Davey Johnson. If Randy Knorr or Trent Jewett had been the one hired, some would have felt going with an in-house choice was a mistake after the Nats underperformed so dramatically for much of this season. If Brad Ausmus had been the one hired, some would have questioned his youth and lack of coaching experience. Heck, even if Don Mattingly had somehow gotten the Nats’ managerial job, some would have wondered whether he was the right guy after his loaded Dodgers failed to get the job done in the postseason.

So what did Rizzo do? He went with the guy he knows, the guy he trusts, the guy he feels has the potential to become a great major league manager. Yes, Williams has minimal managing experience; he skippered the Arizona Fall League’s Salt River Rafters last year and has been a coach on the Diamondbacks’ staff for four years. That’s it.

But Williams was going to become a big league manager sometime in the very near future, even if it didn’t happen in Washington. He’s been highly regarded dating back to his playing days, and his stock as a managerial candidate has risen over the last couple years. Rizzo knew Williams would get a job as a major league skipper, and he wanted to make sure that job was with the Nationals.

Rizzo will now have a hand-picked manager with whom he has a good rapport and sees eye-to-eye.

Is it a bit of a risk turning over a team that is again expected to compete for a World Series next season to a guy from outside the organization with no big league managing experience? Maybe so. Knorr and Jewett would have also been first-time big league managers, but had Rizzo gone with one of them, he could’ve pushed the angle that he was maintaining a sense of continuity and promoting a deserving candidate from within, one with vast knowledge of the talent in the organization.

To most of the Nats’ players, Williams will be an unknown, a guy with whom they’ll need to slowly build trust. The fact that Williams played in the big leagues and was so successful will help, but it will take time for those relationships to grow. It’s no secret that many of the Nats’ players wanted to see Knorr, or even Jewett, get the job. Keeping one or both around could help make the transition a bit smoother.

How will Williams’ managerial style differ from Johnson’s? That largely remains to be seen, but we can expect some changes.

Johnson was as much of a players’ manager as you’ll find. He abhorred team meetings and had a hands-off managerial style, trusting his players to prepare themselves properly. He was incredibly loyal to the players he believed in (sometimes maybe to a fault) and kept the mood of the team light.

We don’t know how exactly Williams will manage his new team, but I find it hard to believe that he’ll approach his job with the same carefree attitude as Johnson. Williams has apparently mellowed somewhat since retiring as a player, but he’s still considered a fiery, intense competitor, someone who expects the game to be played the right way. And when he sees something he doesn’t like, he’s going to speak on it.

Then there’s the performance-enhancing drugs angle. The San Francisco Chronicle reported back in 2007 that Williams purchased $11,600 worth of human growth hormone, steroids and other drugs from a Florida clinic in 2002, in the later stages of his playing career, and Williams told the paper that he took the HGH to treat an ankle injury.

Now, Williams will have to answer more questions about that topic, and some are wondering whether hiring an admitted PED user sends the right message. I’m sure that it was something Rizzo and the Lerners discussed when going through this process, and now they’ll need to sell Williams as the right choice, in spite of his PED history.

While Rizzo got a promotion and a contract extension less than three months ago, general managers rarely get a chance to turn a talented team over to a hand-picked manager. There are often other factors at play, be it on the field or in the front office.

This time, Rizzo was able to take one of the top job openings in baseball, survey a wide variety of candidates and take his pick. He went with the guy he knows and trusts, even when it might have been easier to go with an in-house option.

Rizzo has shown in the past that he has total confidence in the moves he makes. He stands by his beliefs. And he showed confidence in Williams, a guy he’s known for years now, by making this move.

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