The Nationals' appointment of Dusty Baker as their new manager isn't a bad move, but the bizarre path taken to hire him suggests continued dysfunction in Washington.
In a stunning turn of events, the Nationals failed to reach a contract agreement with Bud Black, their reported first choice to manage the team, and will instead be piloted by Dusty Baker, the other finalist in their month-long search. The move returns the popular 66-year-old to the dugout for the first time since the end of the 2013 season, but it raises more questions than it answers about the state of the Nationals' organization, as a franchise that spent more than all but five other teams on player salaries this season let Black slip away over a matter of a few million dollars.
Last Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the 58-year-old Black, who managed the Padres from 2007 until June of this past season, was the choice to succeed Matt Williams, who was fired the day after the end of a disappointing 83–79 campaign. The Nationals had been heavily favored to win the NL East and to challenge for the pennant, but a slew of injuries to key players, exacerbated by Williams's rigidity in running his bullpen and his failure to communicate with veterans, turned the season sour. In late August, Jayson Werth reportedly confronted the manager, asking him in front of other players, "When exactly do you think you lost this team?” As if further evidence of Williams's loss of control was needed, the day after the Nationals were eliminated from contention, Jonathan Papelbon physically attacked Bryce Harper in the dugout during a game, putting the team's dysfunction on display for the entire baseball world to see.
The Nationals were said to have interviewed Black, Baker, Alex Cora, Ron Gardenhire, Andy Green, Phil Nevin and Ron Wotus, with Green ultimately landing the Padres job. Via USA Today's Bob Nightengale, while Black accepted the job, the two sides never came close to reaching agreement on a contract. The team raised his ire by initially offering him only a one-year, $1.6 million deal and by never offering him more than two guaranteed years—terms that would make it difficult for any manager to establish his authority, particularly in a clubhouse that has seen so much upheaval in recent years. By comparison, the Marlins, who spent less than half of what the Nationals did on payroll this past season, gave Don Mattingly a four-year contract worth around $10 million. Black was said to be seeking a three-year deal.
The lack of a guarantee for a longer deal may reflect the thin ice on which general manager Mike Rizzo stands. The team's GM since late 2009, Rizzo—who is only under contract through '16, with club options for '17 and '18—has already burned through four managers: Manny Acta (inherited from predecessor Jim Bowden and fired in mid-'09), Jim Riggleman (resigned in mid-'11), Davey Johnson (forced into retirement at the end of '13) and Williams, who won NL Manager of the Year honors in '14 but failed to get the Nationals past the Division Series. Some of that instability has more to do with the Lerner family ownership, which has a long track record of skimping on manager salaries and struggling with people skills. The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore termed the current situation “a fiasco” and wrote:
The Lerners should know better by now. In 2011, Jim Riggleman resigned in the midst of a winning streak while making $600,000 on the final year of his deal. It took the Nationals months to finalize Davey Johnson’s contract details after he won the NL Manager of the Year award in 2012. He ended up with a $4 million contract for one season of managing and several years as a “consultant,” during which time he has done no work for Washington. When the Nationals hired Matt Williams, they gave him two years guaranteed. The same offseason, the Tigers, Phillies, Cubs and Reds guaranteed their first-year managers three seasons.
Riggleman, Johnson and Williams all had reason for taking short money on short deals. Riggleman had graduated to the position from interim; Johnson had been out of big-league dugouts for a decade; Williams had a close relationship with general manager Mike Rizzo and had never managed before.
The man stuck in the middle is Rizzo. He has not returned calls or texts. People close to him believe he was embarrassed by the Black situation, over which he had little control. The managerial crisis will not prompt him to bolt, but his situation can be considered tenuous.
Via CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, Baker was the favorite to land the job, but initial salary negotiations with him revealed "an immense gap" between the two sides, which led to the team turning to Black until talks with him unraveled. Baker—who reportedly averaged $3.5 million in salary during his time with the Reds, topping out at $4 million—was hungry enough for work that he's said to have settled for a two-year deal worth at least $2 million.
Two million dollars, $4 million dollars, $10 million dollars—the difference is chump change relative to player salaries, where a single win's worth of production is worth more than $7 million on the free-agent market. On Monday, the Nationals officially declined the options of outfielder Nate McLouth and reliever Casey Janssen, who made a combined $10 million in 2015; the former missed the entire year in the aftermath of surgery to repair a torn labrum, the latter was 0.1 wins below replacement in 48 games. Every team has similar stories at the margins of its roster (if not closer to the center) with money spent on player salaries that went down the drain. In light of that, quibbling over another million bucks here or there over the chosen leader of a win-now team for whom the additional expenditure represents less than a 1% increase relative to payroll is penny-wise and pound-foolish.
While the money may not be what Baker expected, he does inherit a talented roster headed by MVP favorite Harper, ace Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. In Baker, the Nationals are getting a skipper with a reputation as a players' manager who commands respect in the clubhouse. Baker spent 15 full seasons and parts of four others in the majors (1968–86) with the Braves, Dodgers, Giants and Athletics. He was mentored by Hank Aaron in Atlanta, earned All-Star honors twice and played in three World Series with the Dodgers, including their 1981 championship. After spending five years as a coach for the Giants (1988–92), he was named their manager in '93. In 10 years at the helm, he won at least 90 games five times and led them to two division titles (1997 and 2000) plus a wild card berth ('02), the last of which resulted in his only pennant; the Giants lost to the Angels in a seven-game World Series that year.
Baker left that team for the Cubs, whom he managed to a division title the following year; the team was five outs away from a pennant when fan Steve Bartman interfered with Moises Alou's attempt to catch a foul ball, opening the door to the Marlins' Game 6 comeback and a Game 7 defeat. The Cubs never got that close again, and after back-to-back sub-.500 seasons in 2005 and '06, Baker was let go when his contract expired. The Reds hired him in October 2007, and in Cincinnati, he led the team to three 90-plus win seasons, two division titles (2010 and '12 and a wild card berth in '13), but he was unable to advance in any of his postseason appearances and squandered a 2–0 series lead against the Giants in the 2012 NLDS. He was again let go when his contract expired, having offered up his job when general manager Walt Jocketty, with whom he had butted heads over personnel, tried to fire hitting coach Brook Jacoby.
Baker was voted the NL Manager of the Year three times while with the Giants (1993, '97 and 2000) and was runner up three times as well ('03, '10, '12). For his 20-year career, he has a 1,671–1,504 record and a .526 winning percentage; he's 17th all-time in wins and games managed and 18th in losses. However, his history of near-misses in the postseason has opened him to endless second-guessing and criticism over his in-game tactics, particularly a lack of urgency and a rigid adherence to the "closer for ninth-inning lead only" usage pattern, a common criticism of Williams as well. Baker's failure to use closer Aroldis Chapman in the 2012 wild-card game against the Pirates as lesser pitchers allowed the score to get further and further out of reach was the final act in his run with the Reds.
Beyond that, Baker has long received criticism for his lack of respect for on-base percentage, that despite having managed all-time walks leader Barry Bonds during his time in San Francisco. In Chicago, Baker famously disdained the type of high-walk "base-cloggers" who had come into vogue for teams as diverse as the A's and Yankees. In his first five years with the Reds, Baker’s teams ranked eighth or lower in the league in walks four times before leading in 2013 thanks to the presence of Joey Votto and Shin-soo Choo, who finished in the top NL’s top two in both walks and OBP. Prior to Choo's arrival, Baker's batting orders often contained low-OBP players in the top two spots, which in turn depressed scoring.
Baker has been critical of the changing role of managers within the game, particularly with regards to the influx of analytics. Recently, he told Nightengale, “It just seems like everything’s about sabermetrics. And if you don’t agree with 100% of everything being said, then you’re against it. But they don’t agree with everything we see either. We’re more open to what they bring to the table than they are to what we bring to the table.”
On the other hand, Baker has shown the ability to evolve with regards to his handling of pitchers. After receiving no shortage of blame for overworking young hurlers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior—both of whom subsequently developed career-affecting arm injuries—in Chicago, he adapted to the era of pitch counts and workload constraints, and his rotations stood out as some of the game's healthiest. In 2012, all five members of the Reds' rotation made at least 30 starts, and four out of five reached 200 innings—a feat unseen since the '05–06 White Sox—and finished with an ERA+ above 100 (better than league average). In 2013, four of his starters exceeded 30 starts, 190 innings and 100 ERA+. Notably, Baker oversaw the development of Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake into quality major league starters.
The makeup of the Nationals' 2016 rotation may be the biggest question they face this winter beyond their managerial hunt. Both Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are free agents; Strasburg is one year away from free agency but is believed to be unlikely to re-sign, at least before he and agent Scott Boras test the free-agent waters themselves. That could make him a candidate to be dealt, but if so, Rizzo will likely need to find another established frontline pitcher to go with Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez. The relatively inexperienced Joe Ross and Tanner Roark are candidates to be part of the starting five, with top prospect Lucas Giolito, who finished the year at Double A Harrisburg, waiting in the wings.
Beyond that, Michael Taylor is expected to take over centerfield for free agent Denard Span, and the team will have to iron out its infield situation in the wake of Ian Desmond's departure, with Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa and Yunel Escobar all capable of playing multiple positions and prospect Trea Turner close to ready as well. The bullpen situation—which Rizzo turned into a five-alarm fire with the arrival of Papelbon, the subsequent demotion of Drew Storen to a setup role and the erosion of the latter's performance—needs to be addressed as well, perhaps with trades of both and a fresh start. Coincidentally, the Nationals have long been rumored as suitors for Chapman, who has one more year before free agency.
If there’s good news, it’s that the hiring of Baker guarantees the presence of one more minority manager alongside the Braves’ Fredi Gonzalez, a dire situation in a sport where roughly 40% of the players are minorities, and one which Baker has spoken up about at several turns. Thus far this offseason, he, Bo Porter and Dave Roberts are the only black managerial candidates to interview for the five job openings; Porter, Lloyd McClendon and Ron Washington all lost jobs over the past two seasons.
Still, this managerial mess serves as another embarrassing moment for an organization that didn’t lack for them this year. That only increases the pressure on Baker to win, but by now, he has to be aware of what he’s getting himself into.