Welcome to town, seventh manager of the Washington Nationals. Have a seat. Meet your team. Now, your job description.
“Winning a lot of regular season games and winning divisions is not enough,” said your new boss, General Manager Mike Rizzo. “Our goal is to win a world championship.”
Don’t mind the seat being warm before you even sit down.
The Nationals’ decision Friday not to bring Dusty Baker back as manager simultaneously makes some sense and is absolutely jarring. Both can be true, and we can talk about why in a moment.
But the move can’t be evaluated in full now, because we don’t yet know the other foot. Dusty’s out despite winning 95 and 97 games in his two seasons and batting 1.000 when it came to division titles. The club’s stated policy: That’s not good enough. So we can assess the entire process only when we know who gets Baker’s former seat.
That person, by the club’s own definition, must be someone who can win a World Series. Whenever the hire is made, it’ll be pertinent to ask: How do you know?
How do you outline the characteristics Rizzo articulated Friday and then bring in a first-time manager? Seems difficult. But does this mean the candidates are, say, Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland? Both have won World Series. Either could be a short-term solution, a strategic upgrade over Baker, whose tactical transgressions in the Nationals’ excruciating division series loss to the Chicago Cubs had to contribute to his departure. But La Russa is 73; Leyland, 72. They might represent a chance to win in 2018. But they wouldn’t represent organizational stability.
About that: As mentioned above, whoever is named the Nats’ next manager will be their seventh since the club moved from Montreal in 2005. As I pointed out before Baker was dismissed, that’ll tie the Miami Marlins for the most in baseball over that span. The Nationals and Marlins are at opposite ends of baseball’s spectrum. Since 2012, only one franchise has more wins than Washington. In that same span, just three clubs have fewer wins than Miami.
So how does a club that keeps winning churn through dugout leaders? It’s simple, really: Ownership doesn’t value the position. The Lerners can’t be called “cheap” — writ large — because their payroll is competitive and they have allowed Rizzo and his front-office staff to pursue the pieces necessary at the trade deadline. But listen to people who work for them, now and in the past, and it’s clear: On the fringes, they will pay for only the bare minimum. In their view, inexplicably, the manager lies on the fringes.
“As we’ve gotten better, as our expectations grew, we went with managers we thought could get us to the next level,” Rizzo said. There’s a line there that actually makes sense, from rookie Manny Acta to in-season promotion baseball lifer Jim Riggleman to veteran winner Davey Johnson to rookie disciplinarian Matt Williams to Baker, an expert manager of people and proven winner.
But what the Nationals are describing as their need right now is an absolute home run hire. The new manager will be handed a roster over which almost anyone would salivate. Who is that home run, exactly?
Dave Martinez, Joe Maddon’s longtime bench coach with both the Rays and the Cubs, was due to get a call from Washington the last time around, when negotiations with Bud Black broke down and the Nats turned to Baker. Maddon spent some of the National League Championship Series, in which the Cubs lost, reiterating that Martinez would make a wonderful manager.
That may be true, and at least some Nats players absolutely agree. But the Nats have articulated — and clearly — that this isn’t time to develop a new helmsman. The next manager could win 95 games his first season, 97 his second, take division titles both times — and not be invited back.
Alex Cora, who finished his playing career with the Nats in 2011, is the hot name on the market now — if he’s even on the market. The Nats thought highly enough of Cora that they wanted him to manage in their minor league system when he stopped playing. Now, he is the Houston Astros’ bench coach and reportedly is poised to be named the new manager of the Boston Red Sox. Had the Nats moved on from Baker more quickly — instead of waiting a week after the loss to the Cubs — might they have been in position to pursue Cora?
And yet, even if they could nab Cora — or whoever might be the next Dave Roberts — how can you know a particular personality is the one to push a franchise through to the next level?
That is Rizzo’s charge now, as he prepares to hire his fifth manager, entering his 10th season. Dusty’s failings were almost all in-game and strategic. That aspect will have to be evaluated closely, while also trying to find someone who can handle the clubhouse deftly. Williams’s tenure is near enough in the rearview to have relevance in that regard.
But a pertinent question for any candidate might be: Mike, what’s your future? Rizzo’s own contract runs only through 2018, one more year. People ask what will happen when and if Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy move on as free agents. But what about the guy who assembled this group? Does the decision on Baker come in lockstep with the ownership of the Lerner family? Or was Rizzo asked to carry water for ownership, a situation that has precedent?
“It’s a total group decision with a consensus at the end,” Rizzo said.
Fine. Now, there must be a total group decision with a consensus at the end on who the new manager will be. Again.
Roberts, the third-year manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is pertinent to this discussion. Don Mattingly won three straight division titles for the Dodgers — and the new front office of Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi, who worked with Mattingly for the last of those titles, fired him anyway. The Dodgers hadn’t reached the World Series since 1988. Los Angeles then, like the Nats now, needed someone who could knock over a barrier that always stopped his predecessor.
“It started in the initial interview,” Friedman said this week, “where we walked out of there joking that we had our answer.”
Roberts, in Friedman’s telling, left such an impression that the Dodgers knew. They knew. That’s easy to say in the hours after the club wrapped up its first pennant in 29 years.
Still, that’s in essence the position the Nats have put themselves in now. They must know about the new guy. They let go of a man who won 192 games in two seasons but twice failed in the fifth game of the division series. The requirement on the résumé of any potential successor: Show us how you’d win that Game 5 — and Game 7 of the next round, and Game 7 of the World Series.
Because if you can’t do that, we’re moving on. Don’t think we’re serious? Ask Dusty Baker.
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