Nats’ two-year managerial policy leaves them in a familiar place

Let’s for a moment try to view the Nationals’ managerial situation in a vacuum. Block out past history and reputation of both the organization and of Dusty Baker. Forget about dollar amounts. Don’t consider who else might be available for the job right now.

Baker’s Nationals won 95 games and a division title in 2016, then lost a heartbreaker of a five-game National League Division Series to the Dodgers, with all three losses in the series coming by one run. Baker’s team then won 97 games and another division title in 2017, only to again lose a heartbreaker of a five-game NLDS to the Cubs, with two of the losses coming by one run.

In a vacuum, what would have been the best managerial course of action for the Nationals? One more year.

Dusty-Baker-Bryce-Harper-laugh-sidebar.jpgBaker deserved one more shot at getting this team over a hump that has for whatever reason been insurmountable since 2012. Two more shots? That probably would have qualified as excessive. How many big league managers get four chances? But three chances, that probably would have been fair.

Now the Nationals do not exist in a vacuum. There’s a whole lot of context and history and common practice surrounding this decision. And so they could not offer Baker a chance to return in 2018 with no guarantee beyond that. That’s just not the way baseball works, and that’s just not an offer any manager with Baker’s pedigree could accept.

No, if the Nats wanted to retain Baker, they were going to have to guarantee him at least two more years. And if things went wrong in 2018? Well, they would either have to accept that and bring him back in 2019, or else fire him and eat several million dollars owed to him.

And so the decision was made late Thursday night and revealed Friday morning that this franchise is once again looking for a new manager, its seventh full-time skipper in 14 seasons since arriving in Washington.

How did it come to this? Where did everything go wrong? The answer requires us to look back farther than one week, when the NLDS ended. It requires us to look back farther than three months, when the Nats were cruising and a contract extension could have been negotiated. It requires us to look back farther than 12 months, when Baker won his first division title and lost his first NLDS with this team.

No, we have to look back a full 24 months to the moment when the Nationals - after Bud Black, their first choice for the job, walked away when reportedly offered only one guaranteed year - decided Baker was their final choice and deserved a two-year contract. It was glossed over at the time, because the Nats had just salvaged what could have been a disaster by hiring a big-name manager, but Baker deserved more than two years.

A two-year contract for a guy with 20 years of big league managing experience, eight 90-win seasons, seven postseason appearances, five division titles and one National League pennant? That wasn’t the going rate for a manager of Baker’s stature.

How do we know that? Because 12 months later, the Rockies gave Black (owner of a far-less-impressive resume) a three-year contract with a fourth-year option. Because earlier this fall, the Pirates gave Clint Hurdle (owner of a career .488 winning percentage) a four-year extension while the Athletics gave Bob Melvin (owner of three straight last-place finishes) a contract extension that keeps him in Oakland’s dugout through 2019, his ninth with the team. Because only days after the Nats hired Baker, the Padres gave Andy Green (owner of three seasons of minor league managerial experience) a three-year contract, then 15 months later gave him a three-year extension that keeps him locked up through 2021.

Baker? He got two years from the Nationals. Which all but guaranteed things would get messy by the end of the 2017 season.

This, of course, was nothing new for the Nats. Every single full-time manager they’ve employed since 2005 - sorry, John McLaren, but your three-game interim stint in June 2011 doesn’t count for these purposes - has held the job for anywhere between two and 2 1/2 years. Jim Riggleman, who both took over and resigned in midseason, managed 312 games between 2009-11. Baker joined Frank Robinson (2005-06) and Matt Williams (2014-15) in managing exactly 324 games. Davey Johnson, who took over for Riggleman in June 2011 and then held the job through the end of 2013, was in the dugout for 407 games. And Manny Acta, remarkably, still holds the club record with 410 games managed from 2007-09.

Sense a pattern here? Not one of those managers was initially given anything more than a two-year contract. Those who survived into a third season did so because the club gave them a one-year extension after impressing them with their first-year performance.

The Lerner family - and make no mistake, this is ownership’s policy, not the general manager’s policy - has been willing to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to sign players to long-term deals. It has found a way to keep its GM in place for the last nine seasons, as well as a handful of other prominent front-office executives. But it has never been willing to commit more than two guaranteed years to its manager, no matter who has held that position.

Every time the Nationals have been left to announce a managerial departure or arrival, they have left it up to Mike Rizzo to try to explain why each particular decision was made. Some of these decisions (most notably Williams’ hiring) were spearheaded by Rizzo. Some of them were not. Every indication Rizzo gave in the last year when asked about Baker’s status suggested the GM fully supported the manager’s return in 2018. And when pressed Friday to explain why Baker was suddenly deemed not good enough, Rizzo could only continue to laud praise upon the man who had just been let go.

Which has to make any interested observer start wondering an even more pressing question: How much longer does Rizzo want to work for the Nationals? His contract, it should be noted, expires after the 2018 season. Might he decide he’s had enough and elect to join Bryce Harper on the free agent market one year from now? Would anyone blame him if he did?

First things first: Rizzo has to conduct yet another managerial search, incredibly his fifth since becoming GM in 2009. The pool of potential candidates includes a few experienced managers (John Farrell, Brad Ausmus), a few hopeful first-timers (Alex Cora, Dave Martinez) and a few who have history with this organization (Bo Porter, Mike Maddux).

There’s no way to know yet how this will play out, who will end up being introduced as the Nationals’ seventh manager sometime in the next few weeks. But here’s what we probably do know: Whoever he is, he won’t be getting more than two guaranteed years from the Nats.

That’s just not the way they’ve done things around here for more than a decade. Shame is, had they simply broke with tradition and made a perfectly valid three-year offer to Baker when they had the chance, they wouldn’t find themselves in this position once again, with the rest of the baseball world shaking its head in disbelief at a franchise that has enjoyed jealousy-inducing success since 2012 yet cannot figure out how to treat managers the way 29 other franchises have been doing it all along.

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