Zimmerman's Gold Glove, Riggleman's Permanent Hire Emboldens Nationals Future

Farid RushdiAnalyst INovember 12, 2009

WASHINGTON - AUGUST 06:  Manager Jim Riggleman #5 of the Washington Nationals heads to the mound and motions for the left hander from the bullpen to face the Florida Marlins at Nationals Park on August 6, 2009 in Washington, DC. The Nationals defeated the Marlins 12-8.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Wednesday was a very good day for the Washington Nationals.

Ryan Zimmerman, who former general manager Jim Bowden described as a “future Gold Glove winner” when he drafted him 4th overall in 2005, won his first Gold Glove award earlier this afternoon.

A few hours later, Jim Riggleman, who single-handedly skippered the Nationals away from the horror of becoming the latter-day ’62 Mets, was named the team’s permanent manager.

Now, neither of these moves strengthens the team, but it does stabilize it.

When Zimmerman first arrived in Washington in September 2005, I had never been surer about the future stardom of any player I had seen in the last 40 years, and his rookie season bore that out. He batted .287-20-110 and fielded flawlessly.

His next two seasons, however, gave me the impression that perhaps Zimmerman was destined to be a good—but not great—major league third baseman. He batted just .266-24-91 and committed 23 errors in 2007 and 2008 was lost to injuries.

Fortunately, 2009 settled the matter with an exclamation point.

Zimmerman batted .292-33-106 with career highs in on-base percentage (.364) and slugging percent (.545). Defensively, he was simply the best third baseman the National League has seen since the Phillies’ Mike Schmidt prowled the Veterans Stadium carpet in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.

Yes, he made a boatload of throwing errors in midseason, but he corrected the problem and the voters certainly forgave that one negative in a sea of overwhelming positives.

This time last year, I was afraid that Zimmerman’s “Face of the Franchise” tag would ultimately turn into an embarrassment for the team. Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong. He has Frank Howard’s demeanor, Brooks Robinson’s glove, an all-star bat and a long-term contract.

Who could ask for anything more?

I read an interesting comment on a Nationals’ blog regarding the hiring of Jim Riggleman. This person wasn’t happy with the decision, saying that the team hired a “mediocre” manager and destined the franchise for years of mediocrity.

You know what? After back-to-back 100 loss seasons, I look forward to a little mediocrity.

True, in 10 seasons as a major league manager, Riggleman has a 555-694 record, a .444 winning percentage. But eight of those seasons were as manager of the San Diego Padres and Chicago Cubs, teams that don’t exactly have a history of winning baseball.

Riggleman’s record with the Padres was his worst as a manager, going 112-179 (.385). In the three years before Riggleman took over, the Padres had an average record of 84-78, but they also fielded a team that consisted of all-stars Benito Santiago, Jack Clark, Roberto Alomar, Gary Templeton and Tony Gwynn.

In his last year with the Padres, he went with players like Scott Livingstone, Eddie Williams, Phil Plantier and Ricky Gutierrez. Obviously, the Padres went cheap and Riggleman paid the price.

In his five seasons with the Cubs, Riggleman averaged 76 wins and a .472 winning percentage.  In the three years before Riggleman joined the Cubs, the team averaged 81 wins with players like all-stars Mark Grace and Andre Dawson as well as Hall-of-Famer’s Ryne Sandberg and Greg Maddux.

By his last year in Chicago, the youngest member of the starting lineup was 29 and featured four players over 35. It was a recipe for disaster.

It was nearly a decade before Riggleman got the chance to manage again in the major leagues, taking over for the Mariners’ John McLaren after 72 games in 2008. Under McLaren, Seattle went 25-47 (.347). Under Riggleman, they improved to 36-54 (.404).

2009 was supposed to be a year of hope for the Nationals. After a 59-win season in 2008, the Nationals believed that the addition of several veteran players as well as a maturing rookie crop would help the team add 15-20 wins.

It never happened.

Injuries, poor play and bad leadership found the Nationals with an embarrassingly bad record of 26-61 after the All-Star break, too close to the impotent ’62 Mets for comfort. Manny Acta was fired and replaced by Riggleman.

Even though the team had lost Nyjer Morgan and Jordan Zimmermann for the season, and had several starters banged up, the Nationals finished the season 33-42, upping their winning percentage by 146 points.

Though the team went through—in GM Mike Rizzo’s words—an “exhaustive and comprehensive search” for a new manager, many believe that it was all a smoke-and-mirrors formality required by the upper echelon of Major League baseball.

Well, maybe, and maybe not.

I’d have to believe that if Don Mattingly was interested in coming to Washington, the Lerner family and team President Stan Kasten would have considered him very carefully.

But it’s important to note that Riggleman’s record as a manager thus far, while telling, isn’t a barometer of future success.

Over his first 14 seasons as manager before joining the Yankees in 1996, Joe Torre had a record of 893-1008 (.470) with the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.

He was 57 when he took over the Yankees, the same age Riggleman was when he took over the Nationals.

If the Nationals give him the opportunity to win, Jim Riggleman will succeed. If the situations in San Diego and Chicago replicate themselves, and he is forced to manage a team sans Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and John Lannan, then he’s going to fail.

Personally, I think the Nationals’ new skipper is going to be around a long, long time.


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