NASHVILLE — Dusty Baker wrapped up his Winter Meetings media session a short while ago, easily the most-attended session a Nationals manager has held over the last decade. (The man is quite popular and obviously is still of interest to those in the cities he previously managed and played.)
The 66-year-old skipper officially has been on the job one month, but he doesn't consider himself anywhere close to up-to-speed on his entire roster or the organization as a whole. He has spoken to a handful of players so far but really wasn't ready to go into any kind of specifics on things like lineup construction and the needs of individual players.
That said, Baker did share some thoughts on his general philosophy of things, what he thinks the Nationals have and what he thinks they still need. And he had plenty of amusing quips along the way, as well.
Here are some of the highlights from the session:
On if this is the best team he's ever taken over...
"Yeah, easily. Yeah, cause when I took over the Giants, we were next-to-last. When I took over the Cubs, I believe we were last. And when I took over the Reds, I think we were last, also. So this is the best team I've ever inherited. And I'm hoping we can sign the players that we have now and add to it."
How big a challenge is this team?
"To me, I don't see it as nearly as big a challenge as I've had in the past. Like I've said throughout my managerial career, I've been fortunate enough to try to do more with less. And I always said I wanted to have a situation where I can do more with more. I'm looking forward to it. I think our players are looking forward to it. There are a lot of people ... at least, they've told me they're glad I'm back in baseball. And there are probably a few people, hopefully a few teams, that aren't glad I'm back."
On how he's trying to get to know these players...
"I watch some film. I don't watch a lot of film. I rely on those that are there already, which is why you keep some of the players (and coaches) instead of getting rid of everybody when you come in. You've got to have some people that are there, and you have to trust other people and not only your eyes and your ears. I've called a few guys. But I learned when I was with the Reds, I called everybody. I spent a lot of time talking to Josh Hamilton and then Josh Hamilton was gone a couple weeks later. So until you see who's going to be on your team ... heck, I'm going to be with these guys every day."
What do you like most about the roster as it stands right now?
"Probably the pitching. That's where it starts. It starts with the pitching. We just have to ... I think we've got to get some guys hopefully have better fortune with injuries than we've had the last couple of years. Some of that's luck, and some of that's hopefully we can start training them early or training them differently in order to stay healthy because, let's face it, if I can keep my frontline guys on the field more than yours, there's a good chance of our team winning. I look at their infield defense: They had everybody on the infield out of position, and that's tough to do."
What specifically have you told the front office you'd like that you don't have yet?
"You're always in need of left-handed pitching, left-handed hitting, and in need of speed. I think that's the No. 1 thing that's missing, I think, in the game is speed. You know, with the need for minorities, you can help yourself. You've got a better chance of getting some speed with Latin and African-Americans. I'm not being racist. That's just how it is."
On whether he considered Barry Bonds as his hitting coach...
"No. Rick Schu is my batting coach. Plus I don't think our organization is going to pay Barry or anybody else as much as [the Marlins] are paying Barry. Plus, I had Barry for 10 years. That's enough."
Who do you see as your leadoff hitter right now?
"I'm not sure, man. You're asking me ... until I see them or until I work with them ... I mean, leadoff candidates? You don't know if Trea Turner is ready. I've asked questions. Mike Taylor, you don't know. You don't know if we might even acquire somebody. I mean, leadoff man is probably one of the toughest guys to find in the batting order. There aren't many Lou Brocks and Davey Lopes, and the all-time man. Shoot, I wouldn't mind bringing Ricky [Henderson] back, you know what I mean? A leadoff man is hard to find."
Do you think Jonathan Papelbon will be your closer, and do you see that situation being a distraction?
"No, I don't see it as a distraction. How am I going to foresee a distraction in advance? I've got to wait until I get there first. I don't even know Papelbon. I mean, right now Papelbon is my closer. I'm not one to foresee problems before they become a problem."
How have you assessed Stephen Strasburg's career from afar?
"That's a good word: "From afar". Some guys, it takes them a little while to see the ... I think potential is a very dangerous word because the more people put potential on you, no matter how well you do, then there's always they expect more. We'll see. I'm hoping that Mike Maddox and myself can help this young man get it together. Really, really get it together, and take the word potential off of him. And being around [Max] Scherzer and some of the guys that can show him. I remember when Nolan Ryan was a .500 pitcher. I remember when Curt Schilling was under a .500 pitcher. I remember when Steve Carlton lost 25 games. There have been some guys ... very few guys come in, like Fernando [Valenzuela] and Mark Fidrych and those guys. It takes a while. We'll see."
Did you reach out to Matt Williams at all?
"That's a good question. I actually reached out to Matt prior to me calling the Nationals about this job, because I didn't want Matt to think that ... Matt is one of my favorites, and I didn't want him to think that I'd done anything adversarial to get this job. Then I also asked Matt about the organization. I asked him about player personnel. Because I trust Matt's judgment. It really wasn't fair to assess last year as how Matt Williams is, because he still is the reigning ... or he was the reigning Manager of the Year, and he had bunch of injuries. I urged Matt — he had asked me — he was offered the third base job [in Arizona]. Because you still lick your wounds, and your feelings are hurt when you get fired, especially when you get fired the first time. So I had urged him to take the third base job, and I see that he did."
On the challenge of keeping veteran position players fresh all season...
"The best way to do that is to ensure you have a good bench, that you don't lose a whole lot when you do give them days off. I know how to run this race. I know what it takes as a player and a coach and a manager, and it's a long race. It starts before you even get to spring training. You've got to train for the race. That's what we're in the process of doing."
On Aroldis Chapman, whom he managed in Cincinnati...
"Oh, he's a heck of a guy. I mean, a heck of a guy. I'll go on record and say I wouldn't mind having Chapman. No, no, he is a tremendous young man with a great family, mom and dad, and what he went through to get here and what his family had to go through to get here. I was with him through the whole process. There was a couple times when I had to stop him from quitting or going back to Cuba because he was lonely for his family. So I went through a lot of stuff with Chapman. I got nothing but love for the young man."
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