Jim Riggleman is about as mild-mannered of a manager as you will find. Well, make that mild-manned ex-manager.
That is what made Riggleman’s abrupt resignation as the Nationals' manager on Thursday afternoon following a 1-0 victory over the Mariners at Nationals Park so stunning. The move is surprising on a few different levels, not the least of which is that the Nationals have won 11 of their last 12 games to climb into contention for the National League wild card.
The bigger surprise, though, is that walking away doesn't seem like the type of move Riggleman would make. He has always been an extremely respectful man, loyal to whatever organization he was working for, and, until Thursday, the number of times he did anything shocking during a managerial career that has also included stints with the Padres, Cubs and Mariners could be counted on less than one finger. Furthermore, Riggleman called managing the Nationals his dream job as he was a fan of the old Washington Senators while growing up in suburban Maryland.
However, Riggleman had grown increasingly frustrated with Nationals ownership and general manager Mike Rizzo in recent days. Riggleman felt the Nationals' recent surge proved that his club option for 2012, which would have matched this season's salary of $600,000, should have been exercised. Riggleman went to Rizzo on Thursday morning and said that if the option was not picked up by game's end that he was quitting. Rizzo said in a statement released by the Nationals that he told Riggleman at the beginning of the season and then reiterated in recent weeks that no decision would be made about the option until the end of the season.
So quit is what Riggleman did. In doing so, he walked away from what is shaping up as a very good situation, both in the present and long term. The Nationals' recent surge has pushed them over .500 at 38-37, the first time they have had a winning record this late in the season since 2005, the first year after the franchise moved from Montreal. While the Nationals almost certainly aren't going to overtake the Phillies and their nine-game lead in the NL East, Thursday's win moved them within 4 1/2 games of the wild card-leading Braves.
The Nationals already have the makings of a talented young core of players on the major-league roster in third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, catcher Wilson Ramos, second baseman Danny Espinosa, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, left-hander John Lannan and closer Drew Storen.
And the best is yet to come: the Nationals have the best prospect in the game in outfielder Bryce Harper, who is playing at low-A Hagerstown after being the first overall pick in the last year's amateur draft. The first pick in the 2009 draft, right-hander Stephen Strasburg, is recovering from Tommy John surgery after making a dazzling 68-inning major-league debut last season in which he struck out 12.2 per nine innings and had a 2.07 ERA and 3.08 SIERA before his elbow popped.
Ownership, rightly accused by fans of being cheap in the past, showed it was willing to spend last winter when Rizzo gave $126 million of the Lerner family's money to free agent Jayson Werth. While the wisdom of spending $18 million a year on a 32-year-old right fielder with a .279 True Average in306 plate appearances this season can be questioned, adding Werth was a statement that the Nationals plan to be major players in the free-agent market for years to come.
It will be interesting to see what the Lerners and Rizzo look for in their next manager. Will they go for a big name like Bobby Valentine, an up-and-coming prospect like Nationals third base coach Bo Porter, or unconventional like Mariners special advisor Ted Simmons? Whatever way it goes, a franchise on the rise will be able to choose from any number of outstanding candidates to replace Riggleman.
Riggleman—who said in his press conference that, “I'm 58 and too old to be disrespected,”—won't have as many choices. His rash decision Thursday could very well be career suicide. He has a 662-824 record in 12 seasons. At last check, there were no franchises looking for a manager with a .445 career winning percentage who walked out on a team that had fought its way from oblivion to contention.