Assessing the Nationals’ Managerial Options

Officially speaking, the Nationals have until the end of October to announce the fate of Manager Davey Johnson. It has been widely believed that the soon-to-be 69 year old will be brought back for another season to lead this team, but to date there have not been any true indications offered up by anyone within the organization’s front office. There also hasn’t been much talk since the MLB Playoffs began, which perhaps is by design.

But let’s assess Johnson’s tenure with Washington and see if we can tell where this decision might be leaning. As I’ve mentioned before, determining who will lead this team should be priority #1 this offseason.

Image: minorleagueball.com

The 2011 season got off to a rocky start as the Nationals went just 12-14 in April and then finished May at the bottom of the NL East with a 23-31 record. June began with a 4-5 stretch on the road against NL West opponents. From there, however, the ship seemed to be righted. Washington would win 11 of their next 12 games, including a 3-game sweep of the eventual Wild Card winning St. Louis Cardinals.

After their game on June 23rd – a 1-0 win versus the Seattle Mariners that put the team above .500 with a 38-37 record – then Manager Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned.

Riggleman had taken over the team during the 2009 All Star Break and had done a respectable job with the team considering the roster he had to work with. 2010 showed improvements and there was a belief in Washington that the organization was on the right path. Yet, his contract was technically up at the end of the 2011 season, pending an option that had yet to be exercised by the organization. Riggleman, unsure of whether the players within the clubhouse would continue to follow his uncertain authority due to his pending contract status (a theme to keep in mind for later), wanted to know what his future would hold.

According to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, Riggleman had approached GM Mike Rizzo prior to the game on June 23rd wanting to discuss the team’s intentions regarding that option. When Rizzo refused to have a discussion – citing the timeliness of the situation (i.e. that they would address it later) – Riggleman instead chose to walk away from the position altogether. John McLaren, Riggleman’s bench coach, managed the team during their first three games post-Riggleman and went 2-1. The next day Johnson replaced him for the remainder of the season.

Johnson had been serving as a Special Advisor to the front office for quite some time. He was familiar with the organization, the players, and the direction they were hoping to continue to move the team toward. He also had prior managerial experience having spent 14 years as a Manager in the Majors for the New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, and Los Angeles Dodgers over his career. He won five division crowns and one World Series (1986 Mets) during that tenure.

Managing wasn’t something new to Johnson. He just hadn’t done so in nearly 11 years (his last year with the Dodgers was 2000). Over the 2011 season’s final 83 games Johnson led the Nationals to a 40-43 record. While the team finished below .500 on the season at 80-81 (one rainout was not made up), they were still good enough to finish third in the NL East.

Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact that Johnson seemed to get the attention of much of the roster. And he was able to get something out of those players over the season’s final few months. Adam Kilgore summed the situation up well earlier this month:

Over the final half of the season, Johnson shaped the Nationals’ roster to his style. After some initial bumps, Johnson had the Nationals structured the way he wanted and they finished on a 14-4 tear. He kept them motivated when out of the race and also bent the personnel to best suit his style – it’s not a coincidence they played better the longer Johnson had been charge. With a new manager in 2012 – a year the Nationals, depending on their offseason moves, may have a shot at contention – they would have to start the process over in Spring Training.

Taking all of that into consideration, one can understand why it would be so widely expected that Johnson will return for the 2012 season. However, there still is one significant question that I feel has yet to be discussed with regards to the managerial situation. The question isn’t solely whether Johnson is the right man for the job in 2012, but also whether he is the right man for the job beyond 2012.

Numerous sources continue to speculate that the organization might be a “player or two away” from serious contention in 2012. This speculation, of course, includes the expectations that there will be no serious injuries to account for, no dropoffs in performance from star players, improvements from others, the arrival of certain premier prospects, and just an overwhelming sense of good luck. Don’t get me wrong, I’m optimistic this team can contend. But I’m not prepared to pencil them into any 2012 World Series predictions just on the basis of “a player or two away”.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this decision needs to look beyond 2012 just as much as looking towards 2012. And I’m not certain that Johnson is the best candidate to manage this team for the long term. As it just so happens, a candidate just recently became available who I believe would be ideal for the position.

As much as I personally disagreed with the decision – though I can see his reasonings for it – Terry Francona’s decision to part ways with the Boston Red Sox immediately following the 2011 season was an interesting one. According to Francona the drive was gone, and he felt it was time for the team to be led by a new voice. The team had just completed the worst September collapse in MLB history and the Boston fanbase – which I can speak about based on first hand experience is just as passionate about their sports teams as they have a reputation for being – was up in arms over what their team needed to do this winter in order to fix this team. Most of the talk on WEEI Sports Radio were split: 50% wanted Francona (and GM Theo Epstein – who’s fate has yet to be determined but who I think will take the job with the Cubs) to be fired, the other 50% wanted Francona to be given a chance to right the ship because of his tenure with the team.

Image: eye-on-baseball.blogs.cbssports.com

I won’t get into too much about his two World Series victories, including the one that ended an 86 year old curse, because we all know those stories already. But I will point out one statistic from his time in Boston. Over his eight seasons with the Red Sox Francona averaged 93 wins per season. To put that in perspective, in the 2005 Inaugural Season the Nationals finished 81-81, twelve wins shy of that average. That’s the highest win total in franchise history.

Now, before I take another step here I should recognize the fact that some of you may feel inclined to point out: the Red Sox had a vastly superior (and more expensive) roster than the Nationals ever have had so any manager could have won more games than us. It’s true. But the fact remains that all of the talent in the world can still be a losing team if managed incorrectly. Despite the talent and resources that the Red Sox have compared to that of the Nationals, there still needs to be a strong leader in order to get the most out of that talent.

Ultimately that is where Francona would make for a good fit for this Washington team. He is experienced, having also managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 1997-2000. Francona also has some minor league managerial experience with the Chicago White Sox. He was even the man who was able to pencil Michael Jordan’s name into the lineup during his lone season of minor league baseball. He’s also been a mentor for two other current managers – Toronto’s John Farrell and Houston’s Brad Mills – who both coached under Francona before earning their promotions.

Francona’s also been well known to be a players’ manager. He’s been well respected within the clubhouse. And he’s had his share of egos to deal with. He was able to keep Manny Ramirez in check for many years. One could assume he’d be able to handle a strong personality such as Bryce Harper when his time comes.

It would seem that part of the problem that led to Francona’s decision to part ways with the Red Sox centered on losing that same clubhouse as the season wore on. 2011 began slow but the Red Sox led the American League for the season’s first four months. Yet, without any certainty over his contract situation because the team had not exercised contract options that would cover the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Francona started to lose the players (sound familiar?). And that’s when the season began to fall apart.

Living in the Boston area I’ve been able to see first hand the way Francona handles the media and the fanbase. While often overlooked, this too should be a factor in naming a new manager. Francona is engaging. He’d do weekly radio spots and numerous other things that let him connect with the fans which the Red Sox fanbase seemed to appreciate. Who’s the say such a personality couldn’t help attract new fans in the Washington area?

Francona has said that he would like to manage next season. However, at the moment the only opening is that of the Nationals since, technically, they haven’t formally named Johnson as the Manager. There are usually a few firings and/or resignations immediately after any season but generally many do wait until after the World Series concludes. As of now we don’t know who, if anyone, will decide to make a change at the helm of the lineup. Florida (Ozzie Guillen) and Chicago (Robin Ventura) wasted little time in choosing new managers but other teams have yet to decide that fate – such as Boston’s new manager, potentially a new manager in Chicago once the Cubs hire a GM, and what the Cardinals will do depending on Tony LaRussa’s decision after the season.

The Nationals have taken their time on this one but will have to make a choice in the next three weeks. They need to assess what’s best for the team for 2012 but also think about looking beyond 2012. Everyone expects Davey Johnson will return. But maybe Terry Francona would be the better option.

Topics: Bryce Harper, Davey Johnson, Jim Riggleman, Mike Rizzo, Terry Francona, Washington Nationals

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