Welcome to Phase 2 of the newbie manager, a fascinating case study that will commence with the Nationals’ hiring of Matt Williams and the Tigers’ choice of Brad Ausmus.
The Nationals named Williams manager on Friday and the Tigers are ready to anoint Ausmus, according to a major-league source. The moves to those first-timers are not unlike the Cardinals’ hiring of Mike Matheny and White Sox’s hiring of Robin Ventura two years ago, or the Rockies’ hiring of Walt Weiss last year. But there are important differences.
In Phase 1, managers with zero experience joined teams with which they had been closely acquainted:
* Matheny had played for the Cardinals from 2000 to ’04, forged a strong relationship with longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan and served the team as a minor-league instructor.
* Ventura had played for the White Sox from 1989 to ’98 and served as a special assistant to farm director Buddy Bell.
* Weiss had played for the Rockies from 1994 to ’97 and served as a special assistant to general manager Dan O’Dowd from 2002 to ’08.
In Phase 2, Williams is joining a team in which his only previous connection is GM Mike Rizzo, whom he knew from their days together with the Diamondbacks.
Ausmus, on the other hand, played for the Tigers in 1996 and 1999-2000, but that was before David Dombrowski became GM in 2002 and orchestrated the franchise’s renaissance.
The Reds’ Bryan Price, another first-time manager, more closely resembles a Phase 1 hire – he had been the team’s pitching coach for the past four seasons.
Former White Sox GM Ken Williams pointed out after the hirings of Matheny and Ventura that both had an advantage of understanding the expectations of their respective fan bases.
Williams lacks that in Washington, and Ausmus comes from a different Tigers era. So, on the surface, Phase 2 would appear riskier than Phase 1, particularly since both the Nationals and Tigers possess enough talent to meet in the 2014 World Series. But maybe not, considering the two men involved.
For one thing, they are not completely inexperienced — Williams was a coach for three seasons with the Diamondbacks and also had brief managerial experience at Double-A and in the Arizona Fall League. Ausmus never was a coach, but managed Team Israel, a non-qualifier in the most recent World Baseball Classic.
For another, both Williams and Ausmus — like Matheny, Ventura and Weiss before them — will bring instant credibility based on their long, distinguished playing careers.
Ausmus, like Matheny, is a former catcher. Williams, a former third baseman, also projects quiet strength — one Diamondbacks player described him as “not loud, but vocal.”
Something else to consider: Both the Nationals and Tigers seem likely to retain most of their coaches, which should help Williams and Ausmus overcome their lack of familiarity with their new rosters.
Virtually the entire Nationals’ staff will return next season, including bench coach Randy Knorr, pitching coach Steve McCatty and hitting coach Rick Schu.
The Tigers, meanwhile, figure to retain bench coach Gene Lamont and pitching coach Jeff Jones, among others. The biggest question will be hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, who lost out to Ausmus for the managing job.
While the holdover coaches will be invaluable to both Williams and Ausmus, most managers want at least one confidant on their staff. Williams hired only one coach — Mark Weidemaier, who will serve in a newly created post, overseeing the team’s defensive positioning and advance scouting.
The dynamics, then, will be interesting — Knorr and third base coach Trent Jewett interviewed for the Nationals’ opening, which stemmed from the retirement of the previous manager, Davey Johnson. Ausmus, too, could face issues if he indeed inherits most of Jim Leyland’s loyalists.
On the other hand, turnover will occur naturally as Williams and Ausmus grow more comfortable. At the moment, the institutional knowledge of the holdover coaches is more valuable to them than the camaraderie of trusted friends.
A rival GM likes the Tigers’ hiring of Ausmus, saying the position is a “turnkey job, like the Cardinals (were) for Matheny.” Actually, Matheny inherited a team that was in transition after losing Duncan, first baseman Albert Pujols and right-hander Chris Carpenter. But the Cardinals still were the defending World Series champions, quite talented. It would have been difficult for Matheny to fail.
The same can be said of Williams and Ausmus, but just going by the law of averages, a newbie eventually is going to flop. Until it happens, though, the trend only will become more pronounced.