Friday afternoon the Washington Nationals announced Dusty Baker would not be offered a contract extension this offseason and will not return as manager in 2018. Baker was hired to a 2-year deal under unique circumstances back in 2016 and helped lead Washington to 192 victories, along with two division championships, over two seasons. This success, plus Dusty’s incredible popularity, makes this decision one of the most surprising in franchise history.
The reaction, as many would expect, has been overwhelmingly negative and many writers have piled on the franchise, making harsh and extremely critical comments about the move. But, if we can take emotion out of this for a moment, we should ask – was this the correct decision?
The easy move would have been giving the 68-year-old Baker an extension, likely for another two seasons to take him to his 70th birthday and through the possible final seasons of Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and others in Washington. One must credit Dusty with restoring positive vibes in the clubhouse after the disastrous Matt Williams era and winning the National League East twice despite numerous injuries each season. Even his harshest critics would likely concede he has “earned” another contract, which makes the decision puzzling on the surface and difficult for fans to digest.
On the other hand, even Dusty’s strongest supporters must concede he is not the strongest in-game tactical manager, and has a tendency to ride his starters and key relievers too hard during the regular season. Combined with a mediocre record in the playoffs, some puzzling decisions in the NLDS and his advancing age, Dusty feels like an above-average, but not elite, manager. From this perspective, one can understand the Nationals thinking an upgrade could potentially help them advance in the playoffs.
So if logically the Nationals are making a difficult but defensible decision, why the extreme backlash to the move? Because the franchise is a nightmare dealing with the public. The franchise has likely increased in value $500-$700 million since being purchased, yet the team balks at spending extra money to keep the metro open late for fans during the playoffs. They are one of the wealthiest ownership groups in sports, but whine about overruns to their minor league complex in Florida. They ask Washington D.C. for a retractable roof on their publicly-funded stadium, during a down economy, to help avoid rainouts. Each point has merit, yet their focus always seems misdirected at the minute rather than the big picture.
Now, much like the circumstances that found Davey Johnson hired after Jim Riggleman and Dusty after Matt Williams, the new Nationals manager will enter a difficult job with drama clouding the position. Will General Manager Mike Rizzo and the Lerner’s again be able to hire someone superior for their managerial position amidst these concerns? Perhaps, as the team has shown a propensity to get itself out of these public relations dilemmas in the past. But, if the Nationals do not win the division or a playoff series again next season, the handling of Dusty Baker will be the latest PR blunder for the organization.
Baseball-wise, I believe the fans should take a “wait-and-see” attitude toward the new manager. Overall, I sincerely hope this unforced error will be a teachable moment for ownership and help redirect their public relations focus towards winning a championship.