That was the word most often thrown around when describing the Washington Nationals during the 2015 regular season. Whether it was the now departed manager in Matt Williams who had clearly lost control of the clubhouse, the mix of overpaid, arrogant players on the roster or a front office that had kowtowed to Scott Boras one too many times, there was a putrid, vile, poisonous smell emanating from the nation’s capital. This is a club that will undergo significant change both by design and by necessity, hoping to emerge better for it. It will be critical that every move is analyzed in a way it wasn’t prior, things are processed and approached from a different perspective and the Nationals make every decision with both the short and long-term picture in mind.
And that’s what makes Dusty Baker’s introduction as the team’s new manager so utterly perplexing.
This isn’t as much about Baker’s managerial credentials—which can certainly be debated—as it is the situation he now walks into. Immediately faced with the pressure to win and the need for his players to buy into what he’s selling, Baker’s two-year deal puts the manager in a delicate situation. The players know that the organization can simply press eject if they’re unsatisfied with the results, and even a best-case scenario where Baker lasts beyond the 2016 campaign presents him as a potential lame duck thereafter. The 66-year-old Baker was on the outside looking in, and it’s almost impossible to see where he would have had another managerial opportunity had this not materialized.
It wouldn’t look this bad if Baker had been the first choice to manage this team, but that was never the case despite whatever rhetoric is spewed in the coming days and weeks. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports that Baker, who interviewed twice, was then informed he did not obtain the position because the team had settled on another veteran leader: Bud Black. After the Nationals allowed word to leak that Black had become their guy, Washington’s insulting, joke of a one-year, $1.6 million contract offer was predictably rejected, and as a result the team circled back to an individual it had just identified as not an appropriate fit for the job.
In other words, Baker was given the stamp of approval after the team had previously rejected him. This franchise—the same one that just tried to tell us all year long that there was nothing wrong on the inside—is undergoing enormous change this offseason. Something isn’t adding up, and until someone—anyone—within the organization realizes that broken items need fixing instead of patchwork and Band-Aids, we can all expect to see more of the same.
This isn’t the Washington Nationals welcoming a new era—it’s the extension of a puppet regime. Had ownership and the front office been truly interested in creating brand new culture for a team that sorely needs it, Black would have been identified as the guy, a deal would have been ironed out and the decision-makers in the organization would have confidently stood behind it. Instead, the Nats hired someone they could treat as a puppet, knew was unlikely to have another chance at managing again elsewhere and took the gutless way out of a situation they put themselves into with their previous missteps. Well done.
The landscape of baseball is changing. Teams are investing into coaches, managers and front offices like they’ve previously invested in players, but Washington, having spent like it won the lottery on overpriced talent, has been seemingly reluctant to follow that new trend.
There is an unbelievable cockiness to this group that simply hasn’t been earned at any point. Far too often coming across as “my way or the highway” in their approach whether it’s within the front office or amongst individuals who are all supposed to be on the same team, cohesion remains a major question mark. Baker’s hire doesn’t mean his outspoken players are suddenly going to talk less, nor does it mean the front office will stop investing in bad business.
A fish rots from its head. This isn’t about just the manager, nor is it about solely the players on the roster. Baker will now be Washington’s fourth full-time manager under President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo’s watch since Manny Acta’s dismissal in 2009, a damning statistic for a team with yearly World Series dreams. The Nationals have problems that extend beyond the scope of Dusty Baker’s responsibility, and a change at manager won’t be enough to solve them.