Oct 5, 2015, 11:21 AM EDT
UPDATED: 11:57 a.m.
Matt Williams, whose steady, never-wavering demeanor helped the injury-plagued Nationals stick together through difficult times to win a division title in his first season as a big-league manager, was fired Monday because he wasn’t able to do the same in his second season in Washington.
The Nationals’ front office, headlined by general manager Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Ted Lerner, made the decision at the end of a surprising and disappointing season that saw Williams’ ballclub fritter away the division title to the Mets during a second-half collapse capped by in-fighting, accusations and poor performances. Williams was informed of his dismissal Monday morning, the team announced in a press release.
The Nationals also announced Williams’ entire coaching staff had been relieved of their duties. Bench coach Randy Knorr, pitching coach Steve McCatty, hitting coach Rick Schu, first base coach Tony Tarasco, third base coach Bob Henley, defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier and bullpen coach Matt LeCroy were all let go.
Williams was hardly the lone reason for the Nationals’ 83-79 record during a season in which they were consensus World Series favorites, but the second-year skipper squandered plenty of opportunities over the last few months to prove to his superiors he deserved to return.
The Nationals had already picked up Williams’ 2016 contract option in February, rewarding him for the job he did in guiding the team to a 96-66 record in his rookie season, a performance that earned him NL Manager of the Year honors. But as the club’s struggles compounded this season, the organization’s commitment to its manager waned.
Though the final decision wasn’t made until after Sunday’s season finale in New York, club officials’ opinion of Williams progressively deteriorated over the last couple of months, hitting its low point during a tumultuous late-September stretch that sealed his fate.
Williams’ in-game strategies had been coming under fire for some time, dating back to the Nationals’ 4-game postseason loss to the Giants in the 2014 NLDS and continuing through a frustrating 2015 that frequently saw whichever member of a beleaguered bullpen Williams summoned cough away yet another late lead.
But Williams’ final undoing might well have been his handling of matters off the field during the latter stages of this season, with a variety of key players questioning his decisions and complaining about the 49-year-old’s communication skills. Last week’s dugout tussle between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper exposed the disconnect between Williams (who didn’t see how Papelbon instigated the fight and choked his teammate) and his coaches and players (none of whom immediately told the manager what happened, leading to Papelbon’s return to the mound the following inning).
The firing of Williams is a major blow to the previously dent-free armor worn by Rizzo since he became GM in 2009. With an opportunity to hire just about anyone he wanted after Davey Johnson departed following the 2013 season, Rizzo hand-picked Williams off the Diamondbacks’ coaching staff. Williams had virtually no previous managerial experience — aside from one stint in the Arizona Fall League and an interim stint at Class AA — but Rizzo had long since pegged him as a future big-league skipper based on the time they spent together in Arizona more than a decade ago.
Rizzo’s job status was never seriously in doubt, but he has received plenty of blame himself not only for hiring Williams but for assembling a roster that severely underachieved this season. He’ll face increased pressure in 2016, with club ownership expecting a significant turnaround.
Rizzo’s immediate task: Hiring a new manager, one who will become the Nationals’ sixth different skipper in only 12 seasons in town. Not one of the previous five lasted more than 2 1/2 years (though Frank Robinson did hold the position for a total of five years spread between Montreal and Washington).
There’s no clear frontrunner for the position, with Rizzo holding options to go in a host of different directions.
If the Nationals want to replace the inexperienced Williams with a seasoned, big-league manager, Bud Black and Ron Gardenhire are available.
If they want to try another up-and-comer seeking his first managerial opportunity, they can look to a list of candidates that includes current big-league coaches or minor-league managers Wally Backman, Dave Martinez and DeMarlo Hale. Or if they want to go for the biggest possible name out there, albeit one with zero managerial or coaching experience, they could once again consider Cal Ripken Jr. as they did two years ago.
Williams finished with a 179-145 record, a .552 winning percentage that ranks 34th among all major-league managers with at least two seasons at the helm. Nobody higher than him on that list managed fewer than three big-league seasons, and among those with lower winning percentages are Hall of Famers Sparky Anderson, Leo Durocher, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda.
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