Add the Washington Nationals to the list of teams that will search for a manager this winter.
The Nationals announced Friday morning that Dusty Baker will not be back for the 2018 season. This isn’t a firing, per se—Baker’s contract was up—but it puts the Nats on the managerial carousel along with the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, and Boston Red Sox in the event that the rumored hiring of Alex Cora falls through.
In his second season with the Nationals, Baker led them to 97 wins en route to their second straight NL East championship—the first time in franchise history, Montreal or Washington, that they have won the division in consecutive years.
But Baker could not move the Nationals past the Division Series, losing in five games to the Los Angeles Dodgers last year and the Chicago Cubs last week.
The Nationals offered this statement upon announcing the decision:
The Lerner family, on behalf of the entire organization, would like to thank Baker for his two years in the dugout. He led the team to the first back-to-back division titles in our history and represented our club with class on and off the field. We wish him the best going forward.
The severing of ties came as a shock to Baker himself.
“I’m surprised and disappointed,” Baker said to USA Today Sports (h/t ESPN). “They told me they would get back to me and I told them I was leaving town yesterday and they waited 10 days to tell me. I really thought this was my best year. We won at least 95 games each year and won the division back-to-back years but they said they wanted to go in a different direction. It’s hard to understand.”
It’s easy to see why he was so surprised, considering that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo was quoted as saying “We’re both confident he’ll be back with us” the day before the Division Series began—although he also had pointed out that no official conversations would begin until the season ended.
The right move?
Baker brought success to the Nationals, but this change is likely for the better. There is a long list of criticisms against him as a manager. In particular, he’s blamed for disrupting or destroying the careers of young pitchers like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior—although over the past two years he seems to have avoided similar troubles with the volatile arm of Stephen Strasburg. He has also been criticized for his old-school resistance to sabermetrics, although that is another area where he seems to have made progress.
Where he hasn’t changed, however, is in the playoffs. Baker has been to the playoffs eight times in his career as manager of the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Nationals, but has only advanced beyond the NLDS twice.
Both of those years were marred by huge collapses. During the 2002 World Series against the Anaheim Angels, he infamously removed a dominant Russ Ortiz from Game 6. This is considered by many to be the key factor in the Angels rallying from a 5-0 deficit to force a deciding Game 7, which they would win. The infamous Cubs collapse in the NLCS the next year further besmirched him, as did the 2012 NLDS between the Reds and Giants, when the Reds won the first two games of the series before losing the next three, all of which were at home.
Neither of the Nationals’ NLDS losses over the last two years were collapses of that degree, although they held the lead in potential clinching games in both series. On the whole, going out in five games to the eventual pennant winner two years running and, in the case of Baker’s tenure with the Cubs, the eventual champion, isn’t at all dishonorable. But they’ve still gone down.
With free agency looming for Bryce Harper after next season, the Nationals’ window for a championship may come to a close. Baker seems to have improved as a manager since his last job with the Reds, which is great, but his inability to win in the playoffs is probably too big an issue for a team that may be facing a single season as a contender before having to retool to replace Harper.
At the end of the day, a manager more in tune with the modern game is probably the best thing for the Nats as they make one last push for a title with Harper.
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