It could have been so simple, even when it didn’t seem like it.
The Washington Nationals could have locked up Dusty Baker before the season and avoided all of this. They could have done it in the middle of the season and saved some of the drama. Hell, they could’ve announced the morning after Game 5 of the NLDS that Baker’s tenure as manager was over, and at least saved some of this needless suspense.
Instead, they waited and waited. Maybe, you thought, they were waiting until after the World Series to announce the decision, that it had already been made, that the contract was signed. It certainly lulled me into a sense of certainty that Baker would return.
Nope. Instead, the Lerners and GM Mike Rizzo waited more than a week without even deciding for themselves, then letting Baker skip town before calling to let him know that he had been canned.
Suddenly, an offseason that should’ve been about shoring up the bullpen, adding a starter, and dealing with Bryce Harper’s contract, has turned into something else: A complete internal crisis that will suddenly define the next season.
The culprits here are unmistakably the principal owners, the Lerner family. Multiple outlets have stated that Rizzo wanted to bring Baker back long ago, and hoped to hammer out a contract as early as March. Hell, he basically confirmed that Baker would be back the next season ahead of the NLDS.
“We’re both confident that he’ll be back with us,” general manager Mike Rizzo said, as quoted by Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post.
What, in the name of all that is holy, could have possibly changed that? Did the Lerners, after seeing two mid-90s win seasons in a row, decide that Baker wasn’t gelling correctly with the club?
The official reasoning, supposedly, was that the team is no longer satisfied with just winning division championships, that the Nats are ready for an NLCS and World Series appearance.
And, yes, Baker failed to get them over this hump. But he made nearly all the right moves — up by one in an elimination game, who the hell else are you going to hand the ball to when Max Scherzer is in the bullpen? If he holds that lead, Baker is still wearing a Curly W.
However, it’s also quite possible that the Lerners simply didn’t even want to sit down at the negotiating table because they believed that Baker would ask for too much, and didn’t want the word to leak again that the Nats had another managerial contract that fell through because of the money.
And perhaps it was a baseball-only decision. But, with Baker—who accepted far below market value to join the Nats, perhaps hoping for a slight raise—and the Lerners—who were only willing to cough up the money to fix a glaring problem on their team in their bullpen when it had already lost the team more than a dozen games, who have always refused to spend at the manager slot—who would you give the benefit of the doubt?
We may never know the full story behind why Baker got the boot. But there’s no doubt that the decision will negatively affect the team.
How is a clubhouse who just lost their best leader in Jayson Werth expected to function when they don’t even know their manager?
Ultimately, we may never know what really happened, though we can probably take a good guess: It came down to money, and, based on history, the Lerners probably weren’t willing to cough up.
In their new manager, it’ll be extremely difficult, if not impossible for Washington to improve on Baker, to get someone who will get them over the NLDS hump — but they’ve forced themselves into a position where they have to get a new manager, who could somehow improve over Baker if they made the absolute right hire, if all the cards were right.
In this dream manager that would be an improvement, he would have to already own what Baker brought to the clubhouse: Confidence and communication. If he can’t get past that first step, then he doesn’t get the chance to improve on Baker.
Analytics and traditionalism were the few places where Baker, as a function of his schooling in the game, struggled. Batting the pitcher eighth and hitting a position player ninth wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, nor would giving Bryce Harper some more time in the two spot.
The team could certainly rely more on advanced analytics, or use relievers in unconventional spots.
It’s hard to know if those things are what would push the team over the edge, because of how much of a crapshoot the playoffs are, but they’re worth a try.
However, these problems aren’t urgent — they didn’t desperately need to be addressed. In fact, by removing Baker and most likely getting a downgrade from him, the Nationals are more likely to open themselves up to more new problems than solve old ones.
The Nats shot themselves in the foot, their players in the knee, their fans in the stomach, and Dusty Baker in the heart in one fell swoop yesterday. It’ll be hard for them to ever make up for this or live this down, and the odds are that they won’t.
But it would be one hell of a story if they somehow brought in someone that—blissfully for ownership—could make this story forgotten come October of next year.