Williams: Nats are "on the brink of something special."
Rarely does any manager — let alone a first-time manager with only four years of big-league coaching experience — take over a club with few obvious roster holes and the expectation of immediate success.
So as Matt Williams, on his first official day as manager of the Nationals, contemplated what needs to be fixed on the ballclub he just inherited, he couldn’t find much.
“It’s not like you need to blow it up and start all over again,” the 47-year-old said during his introductory news conference at Nationals Park. “This is a very talented group of young men that play this game here. This is a great team that is on the brink of something really special. To be fixed … I don’t know, I can’t say anything needs to be fixed. What I can say is that there are some things we can refine.”
Mike Rizzo, Ted Lerner and the rest of the Nationals front office that packed the room Friday afternoon to welcome Williams to D.C. are counting on the former All-Star third baseman to complete a delicate balancing act. Williams needs to put his own personal stamp on the Nationals, using his experience, passion and knowledge from three decades in the sport. But he needs to do it without tinkering too much with a club that won 98 games in 2012 and 86 games in 2013 and expects to keep the vast majority of the roster intact in 2014.
“We’re close,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, one of three players who attended the news conference. “We’re close, no matter who our manager is.”
The Nationals were close the last two seasons under Davey Johnson. To get over the hump, though, they need to start doing more things right and make fewer mistakes. It sounds obvious, but Williams clearly understands the fine line between winning and losing in this game, and he outlined a thorough plan on Friday to take the Nationals to the next level.
Among Williams’ priorities…
1. Improved defense, something that can be accomplished both with old-fashioned work in the field and new-wave preparation techniques that put players in better position to make more plays.
“I do believe that you bring your glove every day,” Williams said. “And I do believe that with this club and with the incredible young men we have on this club, we have a chance to win if we do things right.”
To that end, Williams asked Rizzo if he could make one specific addition to his staff: Mark Weidemaier, who previously worked with Williams in Arizona, will become a seventh uniformed coach in the Nationals’ dugout, serving as something of a defensive coordinator based on his scouting experience. (The rest of the staff, including bench coach Randy Knorr, will remain intact except for Matt LeCroy replacing Jim Lett as bullpen coach.)
2. Aggressive baserunning with an eye on manufacturing runs.
“I want to steal second base,” he said. “I want to hit-and-run. I want to go first-to-third. Those are important to me. I think we’ve seen that if we can score that extra run, we can be really special. So aggressiveness is key.”
Williams’ in-game strategy will probably define him as a manager more than anything, at least in the public’s eye. But he also understands the importance of his relationship with players behind the scenes, helping keep a clubhouse full of varied personalities together through both good and bad times.
Williams named three managers who helped shape him (Dusty Baker, Buck Showalter, Bob Brenly) and specifically touted Baker’s ability to get along with his players.
“He is the ultimate players’ manager,” Williams said. “He communicates so well with the players that — you hear it all the time — they would run through the wall for Dusty. Well, that’s because he understands them and he speaks to them as men. … That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with this club, with these guys: That they can come to me with anything and I can go to them with anything, and it’s a conversation between men.”
Only a handful of current Nationals players have met Williams, so they’re still learning what he’s all about. Those who attended his news conference came away impressed.
“This is really the first time I’ve had an opportunity to hear his gameplan, I guess you’d say, and everything he said makes sense,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “I think it’s a breath of fresh air. We’ve played well over the last couple years, and we haven’t got to the [World Series]. I think there’s nobody in our clubhouse or organization who isn’t open to trying something new. … Even in the 98-win season, we didn’t get to where we wanted to go, and we’re all hungry. We know the window is only going to be open for a certain amount of time, and I’m personally willing to try anything to make the most of it.”
Williams is a newcomer to the East Coast. He grew up in Nevada, played the vast majority of his career in San Francisco and Arizona, worked only for the Diamondbacks after retiring in 2003 and still makes his offseason home in Phoenix.
But he brings a strong reputation to Washington. He played 17 years in the majors, was named an All-Star five times, won four Gold Glove Awards, led the NL in home runs in 1994 before the players’ strike killed the season, reached the World Series three times and won it in 2001 with the Diamondbacks.
And that’s to say nothing of the competitive fire he brought with him to the field every night.
“The Matt Williams I know was the roughneck that played third base for all those years,” Werth said. “I admired him as a kid when I was growing up. I watched a lot of baseball as a kid and was a huge fan growing up, so obviously I know who he is.”
All of those qualities helped shape Williams into the man he is today. Though others long ago tabbed him as a future manager, Williams himself never really considered the possibility until he returned to the field to coach four years ago.
And when the opportunity presented itself to take over a Nationals club that fully expects to win — and win big — right now, he couldn’t help but salivate at the possibilities.
“I’ve played this game my whole life,” he said. “It has given me everything I have in my life. So at this point, I need to get to where I want to get to. And ultimately, that was becoming a manager. I started thinking about it, and it has been an evolution. I’ve done a number of different jobs. But the thing that I have come to conclude in this whole thing is that if you can communicate and you can have a plan, then I think you’re ahead of the game. I hope to impart some of that here and help us on our way to win a championship.”