It is a brand new spring training facility for the Nationals, but the good thing for Dusty Baker is it’s not a brand new team and new job for him as the manager.
Baker arrived at the new spring facility in West Palm Beach with the knowledge and experience of working with this roster, with general manager Mike Rizzo and with the coaching staff already for an entire season - a season in which the Nationals returned to the postseason as National League East division champions.
Baker said not having to meet the guys, learn their ways, idiosyncrasies and habits helps him hit the ground running this time around. It also is a big help that his coaching staff knows the personnel better heading into the second season.
“This year, I know the personalities,” Baker told the assembled media Tuesday. “I didn’t know going into last year which guys needed more work, more at-bats, lesser at-bats. These are things that come through time. Or when we started the season, I didn’t know which guys are back-to-back guys in the bullpen, which guys are back-to-back-to-back guys or who needed a couple days off and all those things.
“Fortunately for us, we got off to a good start while I was kind of experimenting with those things. And Mike Maddux didn’t know a lot of guys. It was fortunate that we had Bobby Henley that was here and we had Rick Schu that had been here to kinda give us a rundown on each player, sorta. But until you lay your eyes on ‘em and look in their eyes, you really don’t know.”
Questions heading into 2017 center largely around the bullpen, the depth of that core of players and who will be the closer. Health of the starting pitching and rounding out the bench are top priorities. But even with all the certainty about the starting nine, Baker said there is still some tinkering to do as he rounds out the roster. He believes competition in spring builds a better team for April 1.
“There’s always some things you want to do. I mean rarely do you go into camp with who your 25 are because that kills the desire of whoever is trying to make it and kills the desire of young guys,” Baker said. “I always like to have some room for a surprise person, I’ve always said that. Whether it’s a young kid or whether it’s a guy that’s getting his act back together ‘cause you know, we have some guys here that are young, we have some guys here that have been stars or trying to rekindle that stardom.
“I would hopefully like to keep one of the stars that’s trying to shine brightly again and somebody young that’s trying to shine for the first time. I’m excited about this group. I mean, we have some question marks, like you always do. But that’s our job to try to settle upon whoever the question marks are that’s gonna be the best for this unit.”
Baker reminisced about the time he arrived in West Palm Beach in the late 1960s at 18 or 19 years old, back when his professional baseball career was just beginning. Nineteen years as a player and now entering his 22nd year as a manager at 67, does he let himself look to the future and how many more seasons he will do this?
“Yeah, but I don’t look too far in the future,” Baker said. “Like I said, a guy just had cancer almost 15 years ago. Back then, it didn’t look like I had a future. And then a guy that had a stroke five years ago, so I just learned not to look too far into the future. You know? Like I read these books about ‘Enjoy today,’ and stuff like that, so it’s like ... I’ve been in this situation more times than anybody, manager, in baseball, almost. And so, I don’t even look at it is a lame duck. I’m past lame. You know what I mean?
“So it’s like, I’m confident in my abilities and God leads my path and so therefore, I don’t worry. Yeah, at this point, I think I’d like to manage more. But when I got sent home in my last job, I was planning on managing some more, too. And so life was good during that period also. And one thing, life goes on, whether I’m here or you’re here or not, time stops for nobody. So I’m just gonna enjoy my time here, I feel very fortunate to be in this situation in this new stadium with a lot of energy and excitement and a good team.”