Baker finds man­ager not pri­or­ity for Lern­ers

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - THOM LOVERRO

If the Lern­ers are wait­ing to see how Dusty Baker han­dles a bullpen be­fore they pay him, they should have given him a bullpen first.

The pen has been an open wound on an other­wise seem­ing­ly­healthy Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als team, still com­fort­ably in first place by a wide mar­gin in the Na­tional League East. Each melt­down brings with it a wave of anger and fin­ger-point­ing.

Most of those fin­gers have pointed at gen­eral man­ager Mike Rizzo and the bullpen he as­sem­bled, though be­fore the start of the sea­son most of the me­dia that cov­ers this team her­alded the bullpen — save for the lack of an es­tab­lished closer — as a team strength.

No one, though, wants to hear that. They see Gio Gon­za­lez and Max Scherzer turn in qual­ity starts, only to see wins turn into losses, and they tar­get their wrath at the man in charge of build­ing this ros­ter. That would be Rizzo.

It’s dif­fi­cult for fans to look be­hind the cur­tain and con­sider pay­roll bud­get re­stric­tions put in place by Na­tion­als own­ers, and un­der­stand that the money for a bet­ter bullpen is sit­ting be­hind the plate in the form of catcher Matt Wi­eters, when sud­denly $20 mil­lion that wasn’t there be­fore be­came avail­able to sign a Scott Bo­ras’ client. It’s too murky.

Baker’s con­tract, though — that may be an­other mat­ter. The un­cer­tainty of the fu­ture be­yond this sea­son of one of the most re­spected man­agers in the game may give fans a bet­ter look at the dys­func­tion of the Lerner’s own­er­ship, de­spite the suc­cess of the team year after year.

Baker is a lame duck man­ager, with no guar­an­tee to re­turn after this sea­son. Nor­mally that of­ten cre­ates is­sues in a club­house. Play­ers with long-term

con­tracts who dis­agree with the man­ager can sim­ply dis­miss him, not­ing that they will be here when he is long gone.

That is what drove man­ager Jim Rig­gle­man to try to force the Na­tion­als’ hand half­way through the 2011 sea­son. He was clash­ing with Jayson Werth, who was in sec­ond year of his seven-year, $126 mil­lion con­tract, and de­manded a con­tract ex­ten­sion from the Lern­ers be­yond that sea­son to give him the power he needed in the club­house.

His ex­e­cu­tion — re­sign­ing — was all wrong, but his de­mands were all right.

Baker, though, is not Rig­gle­man. He is a three-time man­ager of the year with more than 1,800 ca­reer wins, with a Na­tional League East di­vi­sion ti­tle last year and a record of 133-91 to date as Wash­ing­ton’s man­ager. He has reached roy­alty sta­tus within the game, and no player is likely go­ing to dis­re­spect Baker, no mat­ter his con­tract sta­tus.

The Lern­ers, though, are ex­ploit­ing that re­spect by fail­ing to com­mit to Baker be­yond this year — and in turn show­ing him a lack of re­spect. Even Matt Wil­liams, after his Na­tion­als team won the 2014 NL East ti­tle, was re­warded when the team picked up his op­tion for 2016.

In­stead of thank­ing their lucky stars for hav­ing a man­ager like Baker, the Na­tion­als own­ers chose to ques­tion his abil­ity to lead this team, fail­ing to re­al­ize what a mess things were be­fore they signed Baker to a two-year, $4 mil­lion con­tract in the win­ter of 2015 — $4 mil­lion less than he was get­ting in his pre­vi­ous job in Cincin­nati in 2013.

The Lern­ers clearly have lit­tle re­spect for the role of man­ager, treat­ing it like some­one who would man­age one of their of­fice build­ings.

The process that led to Baker’s sign­ing il­lus­trated the value the Lern­ers place on man­agers. They re­port­edly of­fered for­mer Padres man­ager Bud Black a one-year, $1.6 mil­lion con­tract — woe­fully be­low what would be ac­cept­able mar­ket value. Those talks broke down, as Black was “deeply of­fended” by the of­fer. For­tu­nately for the Lern­ers, Baker was on the mar­ket as well.

As we see from the per­for­mance of the Colorado Rock­ies this sea­son — first place in the NL West — Black, who signed a three-year deal last Novem­ber with Colorado, is a good man­ager. So is Baker.

So was Davey John­son, and base­ball op­er­a­tions wanted to sign him to a longterm con­tract. But the Lern­ers, forced to pay John­son a mar­ket-level salary in 2013 after he led the Na­tion­als to the 2012 NL East cham­pi­onship, of­fered $4 mil­lion that year only if he agreed to re­tire at the end of the sea­son. The Lern­ers were not about to com­mit that kind of money long-term to a man­ager.

They would re­place John­son with Wil­liams, but not be­fore there were talks that took place with Cal Rip­ken to man­age in Wash­ing­ton. Those talks ended quickly, though, when the Lern­ers made it clear they would not pay Rip­ken’s ask­ing price.

The Lern­ers may not value the man­ager’s role in the suc­cess of a team — at least not like the rest of the in­dus­try does. One time, though, they did.

In 2007, the Na­tion­als were the laugh­ing­stock of base­ball, with a ros­ter that many ob­servers ex­pected to lose more than the 1962 New York Mets, who went 40-120. When first-year man­ager Manny Acta led that squad to a 73-89 record, the Lern­ers were so happy they gave Acta a bonus that was not in his con­tract.

Re­ward­ing a los­ing record — the lone time the Lern­ers seemed to re­al­ize the value of a good man­ager.

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