A Big Hanging Curve Ball from DC
The Lerner family threw the baseball world a curve this morning when the Nationals announced Dusty Baker as their new manager after dangling Bud Black’s name for a week. If the new sources are to be believed more than the old sources, the Lerner family low-balled Bud Black who opted out.
Dusty Baker has been a class act as both a player and a manager, but If Bud Black was a pitching first manager that the Nationals liked, then hiring Baker says the fit with Black was about something else entirely. Dusty Baker’s handling of his pitchers has been well discussed over the years and centered around leaving Kerry Wood on the mound for more than 120 pitches thirteen times in 2003. According to a discussion at Baseball Prospectus, Baker continued to overuse his pitchers with the Cubs after 2003, but when he came to the Cincinnati Reds in 2008 he conformed more to with managerial norms in handling his staff. So will he leave Stephen Strasburg on the mound in his walk year to throw 130 pitches? Not likely according to the data.
There are other issues pertaining to Dusty Baker who is a class act from start to finish. He is from the same managerial school as Frank Robinson who managed the very first Nationals teams in 2005 and 2006. Baker goes on his instincts far more than any analytic approach. Bud Black would have been far headier in his approach. And that says that what the Lerner family and GM Mike Rizzo wanted first and foremost was “experience,” one of the few common variables between Baker and Black.
Dusty Baker is likely to manage a staff with several young hurlers, so one hopes his instincts can count pitches here as well as he learned to do in Cincinnati. Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are the veterans if none are traded. But younger pitchers such as 22 year old Joe Ross and 23 year old A.J. Cole will likely fill out the rotation. The good news is that their careers are as safe with Baker as with anyone else.
Baker’s problems will likely come in another form. Will he want to overuse his starters because ownership puts all its eggs in some wild hair option like Max Scherzer again in 2016? Put another way, “Will Mike Rizzo blow the entire payroll budget on one player and then have to back fill with a bullpen from Palookaville like he did in 2015?”
In the next two weeks the Lerners will know more about their 2016 budget. Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Denard Span and Doug Fister are likely gone and their departures will leave money to play with. Money will still be owed to Matt Williams, Casey Janssen and Nate McClouth. Those failures will put pressure on Mike Rizzo to get more than he has often in the past. If Dusty Baker signed for the same low, low price that Bud Black refused, it may be a trend, or maybe not.
While the Nationals successfully marketed players like well-paid players like Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer to their fan base, the best performers for Washington have been young and relatively cheap. Free agents signees like Edwin Jackson–a major disappointment in 2012–have been more common. Bryce Harper will likely get the National League MVP Award for his 2015 season and he will cost the Nationals only $5 million in 2016. The Lerners may believe they are best served by sure things like Scherzer and Werth or young talent with significant upside.
Dusty Baker could write his Opening Day lineup card with what he has except on hand currently. The outfield of Taylor, Werth, and Harper could start along with an infield of Ramos, Zimmerman, Escobar, Turner and Rendon. Chances are however, there will be a major change of some sort to augment the offense. Whether through free agent signings or a trade, it is unlikely Dusty Baker will begin the 2016 season with the above lineup intact. The easiest change is to move Taylor to 4th outfielder and add someone in center.
The most likely change will be in the bullpen. There are almost no sure things for 2016 with the Washington bullpen. Felipe Rivero and Blake Treinin are likely carryovers. Craig Stammen and David Carpenter could help if they are healthy. Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon will be traded in all likelihood. Detroit needs a closer and is a possible landing for one of them. Houston declined their option on Chad Qualls today and its bullpen could stand shoring up generally. If they want to compete with the Royals, they need late inning help, so they might look at Storen. Houston has young pitching talent to trade and Washington might get help there. But neither Storen or Paplebon is likely to bring back a proven bullpen arm so another trade or a free agent signing is the best hope for bullpen help in Washington. The best free agent reliever on the market is Darren O’Day.
So many decisions; so many chances to swing and miss. The off-season has not started auspiciously for the Lerner Family. Their treatment of Bud Black harkens back to when they refused to pay rent on Nationals Park after they got the keys from DC government in a sweetheart deal back in 2008. The Hot Stove has not even gotten warm yet and already there is grumbling. Don’t venture too far. There may be another hanging curve just around the corner.