The Washington Nationals on Thursday will introduce Dusty Baker as their new manager, a man who has taken three teams to baseball’s postseason and has been named the National League’s manager of the year three times.
And yet when Baker stands behind a microphone at Nationals Park, his accomplishments and reputation will be the secondary story line. Taking the lead: the Nationals’ standing in their own industry, the value they place on their own people, not to mention the respect they have for their employees and their fan base.
Last week, Bud Black was set to be the Nationals’ manager. The Lerner family, which owns the team, and General Manager Mike Rizzo, who oversees the baseball side of the operation, chose Black following an extensive interview process. The group told Black he was the choice. Black said he wanted the job.
Whether Black, who managed the San Diego Padres for more than eight seasons, or Baker would make a better manager is a moot point, a baseball debate. Indeed, it is unclear what factions within the Nationals’ hierarchy preferred one candidate over the other. The Nationals did not respond to requests to comment.
Either way, what happened over the past week — in which an individual with knowledge of the situation said Black was offered a deal that was below industry norms in both length (one year) and compensation ($1.6 million) — offers a window into how the Nationals function, according to people familiar with the organization’s operation over the past decade.
The past two offseasons have provided illustrations that are difficult to reconcile. The Nationals opened last season with a player payroll that was nearly $165 million, the sixth highest in the sport. They signed one player, Max Scherzer, to a $210 million contract, a record for a free agent pitcher.
And yet when they needed a new leader for what had become a fractured clubhouse under former manager Matt Williams, they made a below-market offer, an offer that “deeply offended” Black, according to one person with knowledge of the situation. By comparison, Don Mattingly, fired by the Los Angeles Dodgers last month, landed a deal that several reports put at four years and $10 million from the Miami Marlins. A.J. Hinch, who was fired as the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, got another chance with Houston before the 2015 season and received a three-year contract. Established managers do not take one-year deals.
“It’s like they want to win the battle, and they don’t care about winning the war,” said another person with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ operation. “They just want to win that battle right in front of them with no regard to the big picture. It makes no sense.”
The low-ball offer to Black is hardly an isolated episode, though it is one of the most high-profile. The Lerners just completed their 10th season of ownership. Back in 2006 and ’07, when they questioned every purchase and decision — from extra bats for players to stopwatches for minor league coaches, to text messaging capabilities for the cellphones of front-office members, to requiring no fewer than eight sets of initials on every expense report — these symptoms were considered growing pains. Eventually, most inside the organization specifically and the sport broadly assumed, the family and its top managers would learn that running a baseball team isn’t like running a mall, in part because the major leagues have 29 other “malls” willing to pay for top talent.
The Nationals publicly say they want to be an industry standard. But by Tuesday morning, it was fair to question what industry standard-bearers would find them desirable employers. Baker is an accomplished manager, but he had been out of the game for two seasons and, at age 66, needed one last shot.
The Lerners already had shown, in their dealing with previous managers, that they don’t put much value in the position. They have never paid a premium for a manager, even as they developed a roster that was good enough to win a World Series. This, people familiar with the franchise’s structure said, is typical of how the club operates.
Take one small but symbolic case. Bryan Minniti served as the assistant general manager under Rizzo for five seasons, often serving as a bridge between staff and ownership. Minniti gained loyalty from the front-office staff for lobbying for such small conveniences as better parking. But after the 2014 season, he abruptly resigned. A month later, the Diamondbacks hired him as their assistant general manager. Typically, front-office personnel don’t make lateral moves. Within baseball circles, the departure of Minniti, popular with those below him, for a similar job signified frustration with those above him.
Did Minniti’s departure do irreparable damage to the Nationals’ front office? No. Is it emblematic of the frustration some employees feel over how the franchise is run? Absolutely.
In any case, this should be a time in which the Nationals — and their fans — are celebrating their new hire. Instead, the largest organizational questions stand before the team now. Internal morale, according to several people, is low. The inability to smoothly hire the replacement for Williams, who was all but chased out of town following a disappointing 2015 season, is emblematic, and many employees are embarrassed by it.
In the middle of this is Rizzo, the general manager. “He’s handcuffed in so many ways,” one person with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ operation said.
Rizzo, who took over as general manager in 2009 after serving as the team’s scouting director, rebuilt the club’s scouting and player development operations and was largely responsible for assembling the team that won division titles in 2012 and ’14. While his hiring of Williams and the disappointment of the 2015 season has sullied Rizzo’s reputation among some fans, others in baseball wonder how long he will want to run this team anyway. There is some thought, too, that Rizzo, who has worked for the Lerners for nearly a decade, should have predicted what the club’s offer would be and prepared Black for it. He subsequently could have figured out a way to get a deal done, to avoid a complete breakdown in negotiations and the embarrassment that followed.
Rizzo is signed through 2016, and the club holds options on his contract for the following two seasons. How much the Lerners value Rizzo and his front-office staff will be determined over the next year. In ham-handedly dealing with Black, they have displayed how much they value a manager.