The jarring end of Dusty Baker’s Nationals tenure is slowly settling into the pages of the franchise’s brief-but-winding D.C. history, giving way to the reality of a complicated managerial search that will almost certainly leave them with a less-proven man at the dugout helm.
But lost in the surprise and chaos is the presumed departure of his coaching staff. None of the contracts of the Nationals’ major league coaching staff was renewed. Pitching coach Mike Maddux, whom the Nationals valued so much that they took an uncharacteristic gamble and gave him a two-year deal before the 2016 season, is a free agent.
Third base coach Bobby Henley, a franchise staple since the Expos days, is in limbo. Veteran first base coach Davey Lopes, Baker’s longtime bench coach Chris Speier and bullpen coach Dan Firova all seem unlikely to return without the man who brought them to Washington along in the first place.
While assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones seemed certain to depart after being suspended on the first day of the postseason, hitting coach Rick Schu had been in that position since 2013 and now faces an uncertain future. When Baker was not renewed, their lives changed, too, their title dreams truncated with his. Now the Nationals will have to decide how to revamp an entire staff, one that was not fundamentally flawed, but was loaded with experience that will be hard to replicate.
Some members of this year’s staff could still return. Schu and Henley endured similar purgatories after the firing of Matt Williams in 2015. Ultimately, both were retained to ensure continuity.
In the hours after Baker’s departure became official, Rizzo told reporters his next coaching staff would be “a team decision.”
“The manager obviously will have a great impact and great input on who we hire, always,” Rizzo said. “But it’ll be a group, team decision for the betterment of the organization.”
It was Rizzo and his team, for example, that initiated the hiring of Maddux independent of a manager last time around. Maddux is the most interesting and potentially important case study as the Nationals rebuild. The 56-year-old was considered a coaching catch when the Nationals signed him, and is well-regarded within the clubhouse for his hands-on approach to game-planning and relaxed in-game demeanor, as well as his ability to notice quick fixes for big pitching problems. While the Nationals and their supposed super-rotation were not exactly awful the year before his arrival, their pitchers have compiled the second-lowest FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) in the National League during his two seasons, and the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.05).
Multiple people within the organization have expressed the hope that Maddux will return under the new manager, and while no one has said so explicitly, the notion might indicate that Maddux’s tenure with the Nationals is not necessarily over. If the Nationals choose a fresh-faced manager such as Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez or Mets hitting coach Kevin Long, a veteran pitching coach such as Maddux could serve as a stabilizing influence. Then again, perhaps Martinez would bring along recently fired Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio. The Cubs’ pitching staff statistically was neck and neck with the Nationals’ over the past two seasons.
Regardless, the Nationals’ known candidates for manager so far (Alex Cora, who went to Boston, Martinez and Long) suggest a willingness to bring rookie managers into a highly experienced clubhouse. Rookie managers generally do not bring ready-made coaching staffs. The Nationals were willing to insert Maddux into Baker’s coaching staff despite Baker’s long list of potential candidates and connections. Perhaps Rizzo and Co. will handpick more coaches for a new manager, particularly if it means retaining someone such as Maddux, whose performance did not foretell a firing, and who knows the pitching staff better than anyone new would.
Similarly, Schu knows the Nationals’ hitters better than anyone, though after a slow offensive stretch run and slow start in October, perhaps the Nationals could justify allowing someone new to take that role. But Schu has been with Rizzo since their days in Arizona, and Rizzo is loyal to those who have been with him since the beginning. If he wants Schu back, he will likely argue for him.
If not, could the Mets’ Long be a candidate for that job? Long revamped Daniel Murphy’s career, a launch-angle guru who Murphy credits with his emergence as a star. If the Nationals do not decide he is their manager, could they try to poach him from the Mets, who just hired a new manager of their own? Murphy almost certainly would argue for such a move, and Long’s son, Jaron, pitches in the Nationals’ minor league system. Again, this is premature, but the Nationals have enticing coaching options.
They also have tough coaching decisions to make about their own people. In the wake of the Williams firing two years ago, the Nationals reassigned some of Williams’s staff within the organization. Randy Knorr became a special assistant. Matt LeCroy went to manage in the minors. The Nationals have decided to make Knorr their manager for Class AAA Syracuse this season, a person familiar with their thinking confirmed Monday. A big league firing does not mean cutting ties, and perhaps Henley and even Schu will find their way to other jobs in the organization.
But Lopes, 72, was the oldest member of a veteran coaching staff and missed a large portion of the middle of last season for an undisclosed personal matter. He seems unlikely to be a part of the coaching staff moving forward. Speier was Baker’s handpicked right-hand man, and could also be jettisoned. Firova, whose decades-long career managing in Mexico finally led him to the big leagues with Baker, also faces uncertainty.
Baker’s departure will lead to a partial clubhouse makeover, to getting-to-know-you periods and new ideas — none of which is necessarily a bad thing, all of which will change the chemistry of this team dramatically.
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