Coming off a sweep of the A's in Oakland, the Reds look more and more like serious challengers to the Cardinals in the NL Central. While it was their pitching that got the job done in Oakland -- three quality starts, capped by
The Reds' hitting is very good and their pitching features a stable rotation plus two quality relievers in
Where they do not have an edge is in the dugout.
Baker's fingerprints are all over this Reds team. He has penciled Cabrera into the leadoff spot in 39 games, a bit more than half the time, despite the shortstop's execrable .281 OBP. He limited the playing time of good defender and on-base guy
Now the Reds are apparently
Baker's inadequacies are a problem for the Reds, who find themselves as serious contenders for the first time in a decade. They cannot afford to throw away value on their manager's whims, not when their primary competition, the Cardinals, is being helmed by a man who squeezes value from his entire roster.
Take La Russa's most famous decision, to bat the pitcher eighth at times. This is a nonstandard practice in modern baseball, but the rationale is impeccable: to put more runners on base for the fulcrum of his lineup,
Quantifying the impact of a manager is a delicate thing, because a significant part of the job is invisible, and to some extent, not quantifiable. Baker has, throughout his career, been given credit for having interpersonal skills that outweighed his tactical and strategic shortcomings. Perhaps he has those skills, but if he does, those skills seem to have been connected in a large way to writing Barry Bonds' name into the lineup. They haven't translated to his subsequent jobs. La Russa, on the other hand, won with the White Sox, won with the A's and keeps winning with the Cardinals and now has one wild card, 12 division titles, five pennants and two World Series championships on his resume . Perhaps he doesn't get the "leader of men" tag, but the one he has -- "winner of division titles" -- is a lot more important. The Cardinals' edge in the dugout could well make the difference in this year's NL Central race.