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Report: Astros focused on Dusty Baker in search for AJ Hinch's replacement

Report: Astros focused on Dusty Baker in search for AJ Hinch's replacement

The scandal-ridden Houston Astros are focusing on Dusty Baker to help guide their ball club as manager for the 2020 season, Jeff Passan of ESPN reported Tuesday.

Commissioner Rob Manfred handed down one-year suspensions of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow on Jan. 13 for their ineptitude in the team’s electronic sign-stealing scheme that coincided with their 2017 championship season. Houston owner Jim Crane met with the media later that day and announced that he was going a step beyond that and firing both of them.

Now, the Astros are reportedly looking to the three-time Manager of the Year Baker to help guide the team through a 2020 campaign that’s certain to bring a level of scrutiny the organization has never seen before.

USA TODAY had reported that the Astros were set to hire Baker, though Ken Rosenthal reports the two sides remain in discussions and no deal has been completed yet. 

A 70-year-old former skipper of the Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants, Baker ranks 15th all-time with 1,863 career wins but has never won a World Series as a manager. He most recently coached in Washington, guiding the Nationals to back-to-back NL East titles in 2016 and 2017 but failing to advance past the NLDS each time. Former Nationals reliever Koda Glover chimed in on Twitter to voice his support for his former skipper.

Baker is regarded as a well-liked manager who can keep a positive clubhouse culture even amid challenging circumstances. He managed the clashing personalities of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in San Francisco and handled the added media attention the Nationals received while employing the services of Bryce Harper.

Houston's reported interest in Baker adds yet another connection between the co-inhabitants of the FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches, the Astros and Nationals.

The teams also faced off in last year’s World Series, with the Nationals overcoming a 3-2 deficit to win the title in seven games. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman spoke with reporters Tuesday about the Astros' scandal, saying, "I think it’s completely wrong when you start messing with the integrity of the game in any aspect. It’s the greatest sin that you can do.”

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How have MLB teams fared the year after winning the World Series? Not great

How have MLB teams fared the year after winning the World Series? Not great

The Washington Nationals have climbed the baseball mountaintop by winning the 2019 World Series. Now the question is whether they can stay there.

Even with Anthony Rendon gone, they have plenty of talent. But history shows a troubling track record for reigning MLB champions.

In the last 15 years, only one team that won the World Series even made it back the following season. That was the Phillies, who lost to the Yankees in 2009 after winning the title the year prior. There has not been a repeat champion in baseball since the 2001 Yankees.

Here is a look at the last 15 World Series-winning teams and how they fared the next season:

[Team (WS year) - record next season (difference in record, playoff result)]

Red Sox (2018) - 84-78 (-24 wins, no playoffs)
Astros (2017) - 103-59 (+2 wins, ALCS)
Cubs (2016) - 92-70 (-11 wins, NLCS)
Royals (2015) - 81-81 (-14 wins, no playoffs)
Giants (2014) - 84-78 (-4 wins, no playoffs)
Red Sox (2013) - 71-91 (-26 wins, no playoffs)
Giants (2012) - 76-86 (-18 wins, no playoffs)
Cardinals (2011) - 88-74 (-2 wins, NLCS)
Giants (2010) - 86-76 (-6 wins, no playoffs)
Yankees (2009) - 95-67 (-8 wins, ALCS)
Phillies (2008) - 93-69 (+1 wins, lost in WS)
Red Sox (2007) - 95-67 (-1 wins, ALCS)
Cardinals (2006) - 78-84 (-5 wins, no playoffs)
White Sox (2005) - 90-72 (-9 wins, no playoffs)
Red Sox (2004) - 95-67 (-3 wins, LDS)

The last 15 World Series champs have gone on to average 87.4 wins the following season. Thirteen of the 15 teams won fewer regular-season games as defending champs. And the biggest increase year-over-year was just two more wins. That was done by the 2018 Houston Astros, and some would put an asterisk next to that win total.

Some teams have really bottomed out. The Red Sox won 24 fewer games in 2019 after winning the 2018 World Series and had 26 fewer wins in 2014 after winning in 2013. The 2013 Giants won 18 fewer games than they did in 2012 when they won it all.

Eight of the 15 teams, so more than half, failed to make the playoffs. But of the seven teams that did, five made their League Championship Series. So, technically a third of the last 15 World Series champions reached the ALCS or NLCS the following year. Those on their own aren't terrible odds.

Now, as troubling as this research may seem for the Nationals' outlook, there are reasons to believe they can make another World Series run. They have a nucleus of young talent that could maintain or even raise the team's ceiling.

Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Trea Turner could all get even better. Top prospect Carter Kieboom could play a factor. Their bullpen should be improved. And they could win more regular-season games just by avoiding the injuries and slow start they incurred last season.

But perhaps expectations should be set accordingly. It is very difficult to win a World Series. Repeating as champs, or even getting close to doing so, has proven nearly impossible in recent years.

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Eric Thames appeared on the Korean 'Masked Singer,' because of course he did

Eric Thames appeared on the Korean 'Masked Singer,' because of course he did

Eric Thames is a fun-loving, weight-lifting, beard-growing, truck-driving, yoga-practicing, Avengers-obsessed potpourri of a man. Oh yeah, and he plays first base for the Washington Nationals.

There are few things that Thames can’t do. So it should come as no surprise that the left-handed slugger once emerged as a surprise contestant on the South Korean equivalent of “The Masked Singer” after spending three years in the Korea Baseball Organization.

Appearing on “The King of Mask Singer” last offseason, Thames busted out his rendition of Stevie Wonder's “Isn't She Lovely” before singing — in only slightly less-than-perfect Korean — the song “Americano” originally released by Korean duo 10cm.

He sat down with NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas for the Nationals Talk podcast and reflected on his moment in the spotlight.

“Preparing for that was definitely uncomfortable, to say the least,” Thames said. “I’m not afraid of being uncomfortable…but I had to go to a singing coach. He taught me different techniques about your posture, your breathing — like diaphragm breathing, I didn’t know what any of that was. But it’s definitely a unique experience.

“I was battling a K-pop guy who could belt notes like no other so I’m there just like I’m singing karaoke, [voice] cracking, but it was fun.”

The performance only added to Thames’ well-established Korean fame. He won MVP as a member of the KBO’s NC Dinos in 2015 after hitting 40 home runs, stealing 40 bases and winning the league batting title with a .381 average. His success overseas helped him land a three-year, $16 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers that stretched until this winter.

LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW ON THE NATIONALS TALK PODCAST

Thames now joins a Nationals roster that rode an exuberant clubhouse culture all the way to a World Series title. With Gerardo Parra, the face of that clubhouse personality, having departed for Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, there’s an opening for a player such as Thames to inject the energy into the clubhouse that it rallied around last season.

While Thames doesn’t expect to be singing his way into endearing himself to his teammates, he looks back on his performance as a fun experience.

“We recorded it and I had to wait probably like 25 days, so I couldn’t say anything. I had to keep it a secret,” Thames said. “I remember I flew with my buddy to London and we’re at the airport, getting on the shuttle, going to the hotel and he’s like, ‘Hey dude, the thing’s going to air in like 20 minutes,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ Sure enough it aired and my phone blew up. All my friends like, ‘Ahh, I didn’t know.’ It was cool.”

Even though Thames is someone who thrives in situations that make him uncomfortable, pulling off that mask and seeing the cheering audience around him was a moment he won’t soon forget.

“It was easier with the mask on,” Thames said. “It’s like singing in the dark. Nobody can see you, but when the mask is off it’s like all right, just let it all hang out there.”

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