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Zuckerman: Process was a mess, but Baker is a good hire

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Zuckerman: Process was a mess, but Baker is a good hire

Had the Nationals simply hired Dusty Baker all along, had they picked him over Bud Black last week and agreed to contract terms, few eyebrows would have been raised. It would have been viewed both here in town and throughout the baseball world as a solid choice, a proven and successful manager taking the reins of a club that despite its obvious issues remains positioned to win in both the short- and long-term.

Hiring Baker isn’t the problem. The process by which he was hired is the problem.

For all the progress they’ve made in their near-decade owning the Nationals, members of the Lerner family have yet to fully grasp the importance of managerial job security. We’ve seen this play out far too many times over the years.

Since the Lerners purchased the franchise from Major League Baseball in 2006, they have given no manager a contract that includes more than two guaranteed years.

Manny Acta got two years with a club option. That option was picked up after Acta guided a slapped-together roster to an encouraging 73-win season in 2007, but he still wound up getting fired during the 2009 All-Star break with his team on pace to lose 100 games and his players having given up on him.

Jim Riggleman was hired as Acta’s replacement on an interim basis, then agreed to a series of 1-year deals that left the veteran skipper on thin ice throughout his tenure. When Riggleman, in June 2011, asked general manager Mike Rizzo to discuss picking up his option for 2012 and the front office said no, he stunningly resigned minutes after leading his team to its 10th win in 11 games, then explained how nervous he was signing his initial deal given the lack of long-term security.

“I made it very clear that, you know, I can’t say no to this, but this is a bad contract for a manager,” Riggleman said after quitting. “There’s no option for Jim Riggleman. It’s a one-year option that the club decides on. That’s not a good way to do business. I made it very clear that I didn’t like that. But you know I can’t say no to it. So there I am. And two years later, I’m realizing: You know what? I was right. It’s not a good way to do business.”

Faced with the prospect of their franchise falling into disarray, the Nationals managed to pull off a brilliant move, coaxing Davey Johnson out of retirement to take over midseason and retain the job over the winter. It worked perfectly, with a re-energized Johnson leading the young Nats to their first-ever division title in 2012, but then it all came crashing down the following season.

The Nationals, concerned both about the aging Johnson’s physical and mental strength and his desire to be paid commensurate with MLB’s top managers, announced up front that 2013 would be his final season in the dugout, retaining him beyond that only as a consultant. Their manager now a lame duck who seemed to lose interest as the summer wore on, the Nats (World Series favorites) underachieved and missed the playoffs altogether.

Needing to hire yet another manager — already his third in his first four years as GM — Rizzo went with someone he knew and trusted, but someone with barely any experience. Matt Williams, like fellow first-time manager Acta back in 2007, was given a 2-year contract (with a pair of 1-year options) that made him one of the sport’s lowest-paid skippers. Williams guided the Nationals to a division title, won NL Manager of the Year honors and had his 2016 option picked up … only to be fired after a disastrous 2015 season that included an 83-79 record, a litany of on-field mistakes and then clubhouse discord.

And so here they were yet again, Rizzo and the Lerner family, seeking the franchise’s sixth manager in 11 seasons in the District, none of the previous men having held the job more than 2 1/2 years. Rizzo said at the outset he wanted someone with experience, and the two candidates who emerged as finalists most certainly had that.

Black had managed the Padres for 8 1/2 years. His teams didn’t win much and never made the playoffs, but consensus opinion around baseball was that the record was more a reflection of a low payroll and an ever-changing front office than of his job skills. The fact Black was a former pitcher and pitching coach, and the fact at 58 he could be viewed as a potential long-term answer, made him a strong candidate and ultimately prompted the Nationals to inform him he was their choice, according to a source familiar with the decision.

Given his level of experience, Black likely assumed he would get a decent level of job security, probably three guaranteed years. The Lerners, sticking to the same philosophy they’ve used throughout their ownership, wouldn’t do that.

So the deal blew up in everyone’s faces, and the Nationals turned their attention back to Baker, who had impressed members of the front office throughout the process. Baker, who desperately wanted this job two years ago after he was fired by the Reds but never got an interview, was willing to accept whatever offer in the end was presented to him. (The Nats have said only that he signed a “multi-year contract” without specifying exact years or financial terms.)

At 66, Baker probably isn’t positioned to hold this job for the long-term. The Mets’ Terry Collins, born 19 days earlier in 1949, is the only current MLB manager who is older. But that doesn’t make this is a bad hire.

Baker’s track record is about as strong as they get. Twenty seasons as a big-league manager. One thousand six hundred seventy-one wins, 17th-most in baseball history. Seven postseason appearances with three different franchises. Three NL Manager of the Year Awards. One NL pennant.

Players overwhelmingly adore Baker, who will walk into the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium in February and immediately command the respect of the room. He’ll also be a welcome addition to the community, baseball’s lone African-American manager now calling the District of Columbia home.

Which isn’t to say Baker doesn’t have his flaws. He rubbed some in Cincinnati the wrong way with his game strategy (a strong proponent of the sacrifice bunt) and lineup construction (a tendency for No. 2 hitters with low on-base percentages). He has been criticized in the past for overusing young pitchers, though it’s debatable how much (if any) long-term damage he caused as a result.

But overall, there’s not a lot of valid criticism to offer of this hire. Baker is a supremely qualified manager with a long track record of on-field success and off-field relationships.

Of course, Black was just as qualified for the job. Some members of the organization obviously felt he was more qualified, only to discover he valued himself more than they valued him.

The Nationals, in the end, may have wound up with the right man for the job. Whether they’ve truly learned anything about how to conduct business and how to give a good manager the job security he needs remains the great unknown.

MORE NATIONALS: Twitter bursts into flame with Dusty Baker hot takes

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

This is not a tweet I expected to read in May of 2018.

On the heels of their latest injury, the team is adding uber-prospect Juan Soto to the roster. It's unclear how much playing time he'll receive early on, but it's hard to imagine the team would be willing to start his service time clock and mess with his development track simply to sit him on the bench. He'll likely play, and make an impact on the team for as long as he's in D.C.

Let's not bury the lede, though. As you probably noticed in the tweet, Juan Soto is 19-years old. He was born in October of 1998, making him the youngest player in the majors, and bringing us one step closer to the first big-leaguer born in the 2000s. 

As incredible as it is for Soto to make the majors as a teenager (Bryce Harper and Time Raines are the only other teenagers to play in the majors in franchise history, which is pretty good company), what might be even more stunning is how quickly this came together for him. 

This will already be Soto's fourth different level of professional baseball this season alone, having spent time with the low-A, high-A, and AA clubs so far. In his entire life, Soto has just 35 plate appearances above class-A, which is almost unheard of for a player getting promoted to the big league roster.

He's hit everywhere he's been, with his career OPS in the minors a whopping 1.043 (his lowest  wRC+ at any level is 132), though it remains to be seen if his prodigious bat is ready for Major League pitching. Still, simply being in the majors at such a young age is a great sign for his future.

Not that anybody should put Hall of Fame expectations on a kid who hasn't even faced a pitch in the majors yet, but Soto's meteoric rise gives him a better chance than most at greatness. Just last month, when discussing the dynamic Braves duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, Hall of Fame-expert Jay Jaffe did some research on young stars making the big leagues, and the numbers are promising.

According to Baseball Reference (and we're just going to take their word for it), there have been 19,261 players in the history of Major League Baseball, and 226 of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a minuscule 1.1%.

But, of every player to ever record 100 plate appearances as a 19-year old (a number Soto should easily hit if he stays up all season), the number of players who eventually made the Hall of Fame jumps to 24%. If Soto is only up for a cup of coffee this year, and next year is when he's here to stay, you can move up the list to players who recorded 100 PA in their age-20 seasons, and the number is still 19%.

Plus, that percentage is likely to increase in the coming decades, as there are 18 active players to reach the benchmark, including future locks Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout, and guys who are young but on the right track (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, and Giancarlo Stanton). Acuna, Albies, and Rafael Devers could find their way on the list one day as well. Considering only three of those names need to be enshrined in Cooperstown one day, it's safe to say that percentage is only growing.

That's a lot of stats that look nice for Soto and the Nationals, but obviously, we're at least a decade away from having a legitimate conversation about his Hall of Fame chances. Still, it highlights what we've known about him for quite some time. Juan Soto is a special, generational talent, and his rise to the big leagues as a teenager is worth writing home about.

What he's done so far is historic, and even if the move seems premature, it's plenty cause for excitement about the future of baseball in D.C.

MORE NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.

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Kendrick carted off with injury in Nats 4-1 loss to Dodgers

Kendrick carted off with injury in Nats 4-1 loss to Dodgers

WASHINGTON -- Ross Stripling struck out a career-high nine in six innings, Max Muncy drove in two runs and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Washington Nationals 4-1 in the opener of a day-night doubleheader on Saturday.

The Nationals suffered a potentially significant injury when Howie Kendrick went to the ground after catching Muncy's sacrifice fly to deep left in the eighth. Kendrick, who's hitting a team-leading .303, put no weight on his right leg and was taken off the field on a cart:

Stripling (1-1) struck out the side in the first inning and then fanned the final five batters he faced, getting Bryce Harper during each of those stretches, in the longest and best of his four starts this season. He allowed one run on four hits, walking none.

Stripling made 11 relief appearances, allowing one run in 15 1/3 innings, before moving into the Dodgers' rotation.

Joc Pederson and Logan Forsythe had two hits apiece for Los Angeles, which won its second straight after losing nine of its previous 10.

The Nationals lost for the first time since May 9. Washington had not played a full game since Sunday night in Arizona because of rain that has lingered over the Mid-Atlantic. One game against the Yankees was suspended in the sixth inning and another was postponed, and Friday's game against Los Angeles also was washed out.

Pederson led off the game with a triple off Tanner Roark (2-4) and scored on a sacrifice fly by Yasmani Grandal. Forsythe doubled in the second, breaking an 0-for-12 skid that stretched to April 14 and included a 26-game stint on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. He singled in the fifth and scored on a grounder by Cody Bellinger.

Harper wore eyeglasses with clear plastic frames during his first at-bat, when he struck out swinging. He ditched the specs his second time up and drove in the Nationals' only run with a single to center.

Roark allowed three runs on six hits in seven innings. He walked one and struck out eight.

J.T. Chargois worked the seventh, Josh Fields pitched the eighth and Kenley Jansen threw a perfect ninth for his seventh save in nine opportunities.

Muncy, who struck out looking his first two at-bats, drove in the Dodgers' third run with a double in the sixth. His deep flyball to left in the eighth scored Justin Turner.

OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.