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Sunday, October 1, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On Sunday, Dusty Baker could have conceivably managed his last regular season Washington Nationals game.

The two-year contract he signed when he was hired in November 2015 expires at the end of this season — now extended into the postseason with the upcoming National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs.


Is there any scenario in which Dusty Baker is in his final days as the Nationals manager?


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Of course there is — if you consider the track record of the Nationals owners when it comes to how much they value their managers.

Inside the organization, they do not appear to be worried that Baker won’t be back. While coaches have been expressed concern — which makes sense, since coaching staffs, for the most part, come and go with new managers — players have not been talking about the uncertainty of Baker’s future.

There should be little, if any, uncertainty, no matter what happens against the Cubs in the postseason. In his two years, Baker has two division titles and more than 190 wins as Nationals manager. He is a strong candidate for NL Manager of the Year honors — an award he has won three times before in his long and successful career. And he would have earned it — keeping that Nationals clubhouse together during the early part of the year, when the disastrous bullpen threatened to tear the team apart.

You welcome a manager like that back with open arms, right? But, maybe not with an open wallet.

The Lerners have a well-deserved reputation of not opening their wallet for managers. The highest-paid manager in Washington Nationals history was Davey Johnson — and that was just for one year, with all sorts of conditions.

After Johnson led the Nationals to their first NL East division title in 2012, he wanted a deal like, ironically, Baker had just signed with the Cincinnati Reds after leading the Reds to the NL Central Division crown — two years, $8 million. The Lerners agreed to pay Johnson $4 million for one year, but only under the condition that he step down after that.

There would have been no Matt Williams in 2014 if Johnson had not been forced out by the owners. And there would have been no Matt Williams if the Lerners had been willing to meet another candidate’s price — Cal Ripken.

And who can forget that the Nationals first began negotiating with former San Diego Padres manager Bud Black — who just led the Colorado Rockies to the playoffs as a wild card — in 2015 for the managing job, but low-balled him with such an embarrassing offer that Black walked away.

With that history, it’s no lock that any negotiations with Baker will be worry-free.

There was hope that a Baker contract extension would have been signed in spring training, but that fell through. I suspect it was having to sign checks for the cost overruns for the new West Palm Beach spring training complex that held back the Lerners from extending any more money.

Now, here we are in another postseason, and whatever Baker’s price was in spring training, it will only be higher now.

And he may have options. Managing jobs are opening up, and based on what we have read about a dysfunctional New York Mets clubhouse, that is a team that could use Baker’s touch.

Then again, next season — perhaps the final year of Bryce Harper in a Washington uniform and the possible departure of clubhouse leader Jayson Werth — the Nationals may need Baker’s touch to get through the year.

It may take a special touch to get a contract extension done here with Baker. Nationals general manager has proven to have that touch with the Lerners.

Rizzo has maintained all year that Baker’s contract will not be an issue. “We’re not going to let it be an issue,” he told reporters in June. “Dusty is a true professional, been through the rigors of the regular season a million times. I’ve been through it a million times. Suffice to say, there’s great communication, great respect between the front office and the managerial office.”

Which brings us to the other contract extension — not as time sensitive, but perhaps far more important — Rizzo’s deal.

The two-year option on the team president and general manager expires in 2018. It’s a testament to the Lerner’s foolishness that they have took Rizzo to the brink when they finally decided to pick up his option in May 2016.

While the Baker contract is more pressing, let’s remember that since 2012 — three years after Rizzo took over a franchise than Jim Bowden had buried — the Nationals have won four NL East division titles with three different managers. Rizzo is the constant.

And, if Harper packs his bags when he becomes a free agent after the 2018 season, you’re going to need Mike Rizzo to keep the post-Harper Nationals competitive.

Really, after Rizzo, hamstrung by payroll concerns in building a bullpen during the winter, managed to pull off the trades that brought relievers Sean Dolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler to Washington during the middle of the season, the Lerners should have said, “Contract extensions for everybody” — Baker for keeping pointed fingers in their pockets in the Nationals clubhouse during the bullpen chaos and Rizzo for building a playoff bullpen in July.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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