Nats Move Forward After Riggleman's Sudden Departure
Published: Friday, July 8, 2011
Updated: Friday, July 8, 2011 15:07
In the midst of an eight-game winning streak and after catapulting the two-time defending last-place team in Major League Baseball to a winning record at 38-37, Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned on June 23.
To an outsider, the move was shocking – for the first time since the franchise's move to Washington from Montreal in 2005, the team was finally winning. With breakthroughs by young players such as Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Michael Morse, the future under Riggleman looked bright.
Yet underneath the victories, a rift between Riggleman and GM Mike Rizzo became evident over the manager's future with the club. While Riggleman demanded his contract option for 2012 be picked up immediately, Rizzo refused to make such a decision at the time.
Ultimately, neither side blinked and Riggleman stepped down effective immediately. Rizzo and the Nationals soon named bench coach John McLaren interim manager before hiring 68-year-old Davey Johnson as skipper for the rest of this season and all the way through 2013.
Riggleman's departure undoubtedly alters the course of the franchise. An in-season managerial change, especially during a period of success, always disrupts a clubhouse. Successful teams rely on accountability and the pursuit toward a collective goal, and Riggleman's resignation ultimately comes off as selfish.
The transition from Riggleman to Johnson, however, has been smooth. Johnson's player-friendly managing style - exemplified by his tendency to stick with pitchers during difficult situations and his reluctance to pinch-hit for starters - has restored the team-first focus.
But regardless, Rizzo's refusal to exercise Riggleman's option during an obvious time of growth and improvement suggests that the Nats never intended to take the proverbial "next step" with Riggleman at the helm. When the team was really ready to win and compete, the franchise would bring in an experienced, battle-tested skipper to allow them to contend for a championship.
Is Johnson that manager? Probably not. At 68, he likely fills the same role as Riggleman as a bridge to that contending team. As I highlighted before the season, 2011 would be a period of growth, but expecting a true contender remains naïve.
Despite their success, the Nationals still remain a team with holes. Although the starters have been impressive (Tom Gorzelanny's 4.18 ERA is the highest mark in the rotation), many, like pitcher Livan Hernandez, are either on the downside of their careers or have performed above reasonable expectations based on past performance. Washington also has a glaring gap at centerfield with no apparent solution in the major or minor leagues.
On the other hand, reinforcements and upgrades remain plentiful within the organization. By the end of 2011, fans of DC's boys of summer should see the return of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, who has been sidelined since last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The continued development of talented arms such as closer Drew Storen and set-up men Henry Rodriguez and Tyler Clippard offer promising pitching options for years to come.
On the offensive side, the aforementioned breakouts by Espinosa, Desmond, and Morse appear real, while 2010 No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper has continued to stake his claim as baseball's best prospect while playing in the minors. Washington was also able to snag impressive hitting prospect Anthony Rendon out of Rice University with the sixth overall pick in this June's draft after many experts projected him to go as high as number one.
In other words, the 2011 Nationals‘ success is no fluke. While Riggleman deserves credit for many decisions, such as making Morse as a full-time player, it was reasonable to expect improvement regardless. The Nats should continue to improve under Johnson in 2011 and 2012, before potentially handing over the reigns of the squad to an experienced skipper ready to bring the once-dreadful franchise to prosperity.