Dusty Baker woke up Saturday morning in California, a country away from the uncertainty his departure left in Washington.
When the Nationals decided not to renew Baker’s contract after he won 95 games last year and 97 this year, the organization tied its future to an as-yet-unknown savior, to the man who can lead a veteran and quietly opinionated clubhouse to a World Series in what is likely the final year of its window to winning it all — all while knowing the company line about why the last guy was let go basically summed up to “he didn’t win it all.”
In more than a century of baseball, only 72 men have managed a team that won a World Series. So the Nationals are hunting a championship needle in a thorny and ever-shifting haystack. They let the winningest active manager go without offering a contract. They tried to develop a homegrown manager before that, and Matt Williams lost control of a veteran clubhouse.
So now the Nationals are either trying to find a veteran manager who can lead them to a title as Baker could not, or trying to find a young manager who will somehow earn the trust of a roster riddled with stars. And they are trying to find a man willing to take a job with a history defined by turnover and for employers generally unwilling to commit years and money to people in his position.
The Nationals have, in other words, eliminated the margin for error in their managerial selection process. Fits will be difficult. And any “fit” will have to decide whether he wants to take a chance on what is the winningest hub of baseball volatility over the last half-decade.
Even so, the job is not without appeal.
Whoever inherits this team will manage a ready-made title contender, the Ferrari of the Major League Baseball fleet, ready to win now and at most costs. He will have a one-year window in which his roster will be loaded with superstar talent in a weak division; his rotation will feature Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg likely still pitching like Cy Young candidates; and his bullpen will have a back end that already seems set.
Any aspiring manager would be tempted by such a chance. Could Chicago Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez, who has interviewed repeatedly here and elsewhere, really turn down such an opportunity? Or would former Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who interviewed here in 2013, decline a chance at redemption with a similarly star-studded roster to the one he managed in Detroit?
While Ausmus doesn’t fit the first-year mold, there are other potential candidates like Alex Cora (reportedly headed to the Boston Red Sox) who could get their first chance in Washington. For the record, only four rookie managers have ever led a team to a World Series title. The last was Bob Brenly with the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo was the director of scouting for that team.
But for any young manager hoping to grow up with a franchise — and even for any more experienced candidate hoping for a chance at a title — the job comes with a measure of radioactivity.
First of all, the Nationals have fostered no sense of managerial stability. They have won four division titles in six seasons with three different managers, seen one of them win National League manager of the year then be fired the next, and most recently let go the first man to lead them to back-to-back NL East titles. Nationals ownership has shown no willingness to extend their managers’ contracts despite strong performance — as with Baker, when Rizzo wanted to extend him before the 2017 season. Among industry insiders, the Nationals have a reputation for placing little value on the managerial position.
And if existing instability were not enough, the Nationals also come with the threat of overhaul. Rizzo’s contract is up after the 2018 season, and his future with the team will likely depend on his willingness to continue existing in the unpredictable framework given him by the Nationals’ owners.
Bryce Harper also seems likely to depart for free agency after 2018, meaning any manager that takes this team accepts the possibility that its biggest star will be gone after just one season. That manager might be without Daniel Murphy after 2018, too, when Murphy’s contract expires. He also might find himself without Murphy for part of 2018, as the 32-year-old’s timetable for recovery from knee surgery Friday remains unclear.
Former Red Sox manager John Farrell has won a World Series and endured Boston’s managerial chaos, making him a strong candidate. But he comes with off-field baggage after a Comcast SportsNet reporter resigned in the wake of reports about an inappropriate relationship with him.
Former Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu, former Astros manager and Nationals coach Bo Porter, and former Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale — who was also in Arizona when Rizzo was there — are available.
But the Nationals would also have to sell their clubhouse on a veteran manager with a lesser résumé than Baker’s, which is nearly every available veteran manager. They would also have to sell that manager on a clubhouse loaded with ideas of its own, for better or worse.
So as the Nationals’ search for a manager begins, veiled in their typical secrecy and obfuscation, they are facing the unenviable task of threading the needle. They need a manager with enough clout to command their clubhouse, enough new to make change worth it, and enough . . . well, whatever . . . to win a World Series. And they need that manager to believe they are worth the risk, too.