On-field success should define Ron Washington's Rangers tenure
With just 22 games to go in an unexpectedly dismal season, Ron Washington has resigned from his job as the manager of the Rangers, citing a need to "devote [his] full attention to addressing an off-the-field personal matter." It's an unsettlingly abrupt ending for the winningest manager in franchise history, one who guided the Rangers to back-to-back pennants in 2010-2011, coming within one out of a world championship in the latter year.
In a press conference to announce the resignation, general manager Jon Daniels shot down speculation that the 62-year-old manager's departure was drug-related, referring to the spring 2010 revelation that Washington had tested positive for cocaine back in the summer of 2009. Daniels appointed bench coach Tim Bogar as the team's interim manager for the remainder of the season.
Washington had piloted the Rangers since the start of the 2007 season, taking over from the fired Buck Showalter and guiding the team to a cumulative 664-611 (.521) record. His totals of wins, losses, games and games above .500 are all franchise records; among the 17 managers in franchise history who lasted at least one full season, only Billy Hunter (146-108 in 1977-1978), has a higher winning percentage, albeit in less than two full seasons.
Prior to this year, the Rangers had finished above .500 in five straight seasons, with at least 90 wins in each of the last four -- their longest stretch of sustained success in franchise history. Under Washington, the team doubled its total number of playoff berths via AL West titles and pennants in 2010 and 2011, and then a Wild Card berth in 2012. Their .570 winning percentage from 2010-2013 was the majors' third-best, half a game behind the Braves and two and a half behind the Yankees.
Before being named the Rangers' manager, Washington spent 20 seasons in professional baseball as a player (1971-1990) including parts of 10 seasons in the majors, most of them with the Twins. He followed that with five seasons coaching and managing in the Mets' minor league system. He joined the A's for an 11-season run (1996-2006) as a coach on their major league staff with the last 10 as their third base and infield coach. The A's reached the playoffs five times during that stretch, and Washington drew acclaim for helping infielders Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada flourish. Michael Lewis affectionately profiled him in his 2003 bestseller, Moneyball, observing, "Ron Washington can't open his mouth without saying something that belongs in Bartlett's." When the book was adapted into a 2011 movie, Washington's character (played by Brent Jennings) stole a scene with his deadpan delivery of Washington's blunt appraisal of teaching ex-catcher Scott Hatteberg the first base ropes: "It's incredibly hard."
In Texas, Washington's run of success was fueled by the stellar work of Daniels and a scouting and player development staff featuring the recently-departed A.J. Preller, who was hired as the Padres general manager last month. Despite ongoing tension between Daniels and club president Nolan Ryan, trades for players such as Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton and Cliff Lee -- via a bounty brought back in the 2007 deal that sent Mark Teixeira to Atlanta -- Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison bore fruit. Joining a core that included Ian Kinsler, Michael Young and C.J. Wilson, those players helped Rangers to their first AL pennant in 50 seasons (13 as the second Washington Senators) in 2010, though they lost to the Giants in a five-game World Series. Lee departed via free agency after that year, but thanks to the addition of ex-Angel Mike Napoli, they won a club record 96 games and another pennant in 2011 before losing a seven-game epic to the Cardinals.
Washington never drew high marks for his in-game tactical skills and "go with your gut" style, particularly with regards to his penchant for playing small ball in a hitters' haven. The Baseball Prospectus 2014 annual cited the Rangers' 307 sacrifice bunts from 2007-2013 as the most in the majors, 24 more than the Angels. Though the Rangers went 18-16 in the postseason during Washington’s tenure, he struggled under the microscope. In Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, he made numerous mistakes, capped by his failure to replace defensively inept rightfielder Cruz. With the Cardinals trailing by two runs and down to their final out, David Freese’s triple over Cruz's head tied the game.
Washington’s 2012 team blew a six-game late August lead and wound up losing the AL West on the last day of the season. The Orioles eliminated them in Wild Card game. His 2013 team lost to the Rays in a one-game play-in marked by numerous bunts and baserunning mistakes. Even so, Washington earned a strong reputation as a players' manager, with his skills as a leader and motivator drawing praise. The Baseball Prospectus 2013 annual observed, "Washington's players often rave about both his relaxed style and unabashed enthusiasm. His excitable ticks and in-game dugout celebrations have become a trademark in recent years."
All the motivational skill in the world wasn't enough for Washington to help the Rangers this year, however. With Jurickson Profar suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in spring training, Shin-Soo Choo, Prince Fielder, Harrison, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Mitch Moreland, Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez among those succumbing to season-ending injuries along the way, and Derek Holland not debuting until September 2, the Rangers somehow played .500 ball through the season's first 70 games before losing 22 out of their final 25 heading into the All-Star break. They've gone 15-30 since, and earlier this week became the first team to be entirely eliminated from postseason contention. At 53-87, they're a whopping 31 1/2 games out of first place in the AL West, eight games behind the rebuilding Astros. The team has already set major league records by using 63 players and 40 pitchers this season.
Amid that mess, Washington drew criticism in late August when he told a Dallas radio station that ace Yu Darvish, who had been on the shelf since August 9 due to elbow inflammation, needed to come back on schedule so "he doesn't quit on his teammates." Washington was forced to walk back that statement when Daniels came out in support of his ace.
Despite that dust-up and the team's poor performance, Daniels planned to retain Washington, who received an extension for 2015 back in February. Via The Detroit News, here’s what the GM said on Friday:
“This has been a difficult season for the team on the field for a variety of reasons, but it was very clear throughout the organization, publicly, privately, and with Ron, that he was coming back,” Daniels said. “We were planning on him to be back as our manager for 2015, and the bottom line is that you don’t have a season like we had without a number of things going wrong. … While we’re disappointed, we accept Ron’s decision."
Daniels would not go into specifics regarding the nature of Washington's decision except to acknowledge (with the manager's permission) that the move "was not drug related." Said Washington in his statement:
“Today, I have submitted my resignation from the job I love -- managing the Rangers -- in order to devote my full attention to addressing an off-the-field personal matter. As painful as it is, stepping away from the game is what’s best for me and my family.
“This is in no way related to the disappointing performance of the team this season. We were already discussing 2015 and looking forward to getting the Rangers back to postseason contention.
“I deeply regret that I’ve let down the Rangers organization and our great fans. Over the past eight seasons, it’s been a privilege to be part of some of the best years in club history and I will always be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had here, and for the great management, players, and coaches who have made our time here a success. Thank you for respecting my privacy.”
Members of the Rangers coaching staff, including third base coach Gary Pettis, Washington’s closest friend on the team, had no idea he was approaching such a move. Via the Dallas Morning News’ Evan Grant:
Gary Pettis, Ron Washington's closest friend on staff said he had no idea that anything was amiss. Completely gut-punched. #Rangers— Evan Grant (@Evan_P_Grant) September 5, 2014
Washington is the second manager to lose his job in the past week, following the firing of Houston's Bo Porter on Monday. Their departures leave the Mariners' Lloyd McClendon as the majors' only African-American manager.
Particularly with Ryan back in the Astros’ front office in an advisory capacity, Porter’s firing clouds the picture with regards to who could succeed Washington. Bogar, who has five years of minor league managerial experience but none in the majors, previously interviewed for the Astros managerial job that went to Porter and is thought to be a candidate for the new opening. So is pitching coach Mike Maddux, the Rangers’ pitching coach for the last six seasons; he has previously interviewed for managerial jobs with the Cubs and Red Sox.
Even amid their current disarray, the Rangers’ recent success may make their job the more appealing of the two, but for the moment, the organization is reeling from the sudden shock of Washington’s resignation, though that’s secondary to whatever the now-ex-manager is going through. Here’s hoping he’s able to resolve his off-field issues and find his way back to the game soon.