- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Jim Riggleman put all his chips on the table and came up empty.
After the Nationals' won for the 11th time in 12 games and climbed one game over .500, manager Riggleman resigned, after the Nationals refused his request to extend his contract beyond 2011. General manager Mike Rizzo said Riggleman told him before the game, "If we wouldn't pick up his option, he wouldn't get on the team bus today."
And Riggleman stuck to his word. "You have to feel like there's a commitment to you, and I didn't feel that," Riggleman told reporters after the game. "I'm obviously not the person who they want to go down the road with them." Riggleman added that he'd never do a one-year deal again as a manager.
I don't think he'll have to worry about that. No team will ever hire a manager again who quit on his team in the middle of the season, especially a 58-year-old with a track record of many more defeats than wins. Rizzo acknowledged as such, saying, "I'm disappointed that this is a distraction, and that he's not thinking of the team first, and put personal goals and objectives ahead of the team."
Look, Riggleman is no Earl Weaver or Tony La Russa. He even said, "I know I'm not Casey Stengel, but I do feel that I know what I'm doing." He got his first managing gig at the end of the 1992 season with the Padres, when he was just 39 years old. After two years in San Diego, he skippered the Cubs for five seasons, winning the 1998 NL wild card, but finishing 374-419 during his tenure there. He was a placeholder for the Mariners at the end of 2008 and then replaced Manny Acta in Washington midway through the 2009 season. In his career he's 662-824, a .445 winning percentage. Among the 86 managers who have managed at least 1,400 games in the majors, that winning percentage ranks 84th, ahead of only Patsy Donovan, who was born in Ireland and managed five clubs around the turn of the century, and Billy Barnie, who managed in the 1800s and was nicknamed Bald Billy.
Was Riggleman a good manager? It's hard to say. His first full season in San Diego was 1993, the infamous "fire sale" year when the Padres traded away Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff. He took over a Cubs franchise that had played .475 ball or better in six of seven seasons and managed them to a .472 winning percentage. After losing 93 games last season, the Nationals were obviously playing better this season and on a hot streak. Riggleman must have figured there was no time like now to make his move.
As for evaluating a manager, I like to look at what young players he developed. Riggleman has had success with relievers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. Michael Morse isn't necessarily young, but Riggleman was the first manager to really give him a chance to play, and Morse has performed well. The recent decision to move Jayson Werth into the leadoff spot and hit the pitcher eighth was at least creative. I don't think it speaks well of his evaluative skills that Pudge Rodriguez, future Hall of Famer but a guy who hasn't hit in years, began the year as the starting catcher over Wilson Ramos. Yes, Riggleman eventually realized Ramos was the far better player, but he should have known that coming out of spring training. Otherwise, Riggleman is kind of the classic, modern-day manager: low-key, faceless, unemotional and a bit boring.
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The biggest decision of Riggleman's managerial career probably came in 1998, when he (or Cubs brass) decided to start rookie Kerry Wood in Game 3 of the 1998 Division Series against the Braves. The Cubs were already down two-games-to-none and facing elimination. Wood hadn't pitched since Aug. 31, due to a sprained ligament in his elbow. It was a cold day. At the time, Riggleman said he wasn't taking any risks by starting Wood and that physically Wood had "passed every test and felt very good." Wood was asked about the cold weather, saying, "It's probably the coldest I've pitched in all year. I've never pitched in sleeves before, but it's probably going to be cold enough that I'm going to wear them."
Doesn't look like a situation worth the risk, does it?
During spring training in 1999, Wood underwent Tommy John surgery. You can blame that one start or not -- maybe Wood's elbow was already shot. But if you ask me, Riggleman -- and the Cubs' front office at the time cannot go without blame here -- selfishly put himself ahead of what was best for the team, which would have been to protect their star young pitcher.
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The Nationals potentially have something good brewing here. Ryan Zimmerman is back. Werth will hit better. Ramos will improve. Danny Espinosa is a terrific second baseman with some pop in his bat (13 home runs). Yes, it's a distraction. But they'll be fine. Riggleman wasn't the reason for the recent surge; the players were. Players win and lose games. All you want is a manager to not screw things up. Maybe Riggleman didn't screw up the Nationals, but unless he has some very close friends who run major league franchises, his career is certainly screwed.
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