Questions face Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker as new Nats era begins

Following the disappointment of a year without playoff baseball in Washington, the Nationals’ offseason has gotten off to a rocky start. The team finally hired a manager, announcing a multi-year deal with Dusty Baker after contract talks with Bud Black fell apart, apparently over compensation.

The embarrassing situation is the latest for the Nationals after dealing with Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper fighting in the dugout a day after the team was eliminated from the postseason in late September. Matt Williams’ fate was probably determined before the skirmish, but his obliviousness to the severity of the situation certainly cemented his dismissal.

General manager Mike Rizzo - who built the Nationals into a perennial contender - has not experienced many good times over the past three months. His acquisition of Papelbon just before July’s trade deadline seemingly wrecked the bullpen chemistry down the stretch. The Papelbon-Harper altercation left the Nationals as the butt of jokes. Rizzo fired Williams a day after the season ended and then the Mets - who revamped their offense at the trade deadline - advanced through October to the World Series, where they lost in five games to the Royals.

After first deciding on Black, Rizzo was forced to go back to Baker after reports of lowball contract offers surfaced. With Baker, Rizzo actually ends up with a far more accomplished manager. Baker, 66, has managed the Giants, Cubs and Reds into the postseason, winning the National League pennant with San Francisco in 2002 before losing the World Series to the Angels.

baker-reds-smile-sidebar.jpgBaker assumes a roster led by Harper and Max Scherzer that still possesses plenty of talent to contend for a division title in 2016 despite the expected losses of free agents Denard Span, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister. But Rizzo and Baker must work together quickly to settle several concerning issues before the Nationals head back to Viera, Fla., in mid-February to begin spring training.

Rebuilding the Nationals bullpen should be the first order of business. Rizzo will most likely look to move Papelbon, who has a no-trade clause and $11 million remaining on his contract through next season. Drew Storen would also like a change of scenery. If Papelbon and Storen are both shipped off, the Nationals will obviously be left with a gaping hole in the back half of their bullpen.

A trade for Reds closer Aroldis Chapman could be an option, but also a costly one. The 27-year-old developed into one of the game’s most intimidating relievers under Baker’s watch in Cincinnati. Chapman saved 38 of the Reds’ 97 wins for Baker in 2012 and matched that save total the following season as Cincinnati reached the postseason in back-to-back years.

With Zimmermann and Fister likely departing, Baker will need to fill out his rotation, with right-handers Tanner Roark and Joe Ross expected to permanently join the starting five. But Rizzo could also investigate a trade or dip into free agency for a more proven starter.

Communication, or lack thereof, between Williams and his players was a major problem within the Nationals clubhouse, especially last season. That figures to change under Baker, who brings charisma and respect from numerous accomplished players who took the field for him.

Baker’s relationship with Harper is obviously important, not only for the success of the team, but for the future of the young slugger with the franchise. Baker managed Barry Bonds in San Francisco from 1993-2002. Sammy Sosa slugged 75 homers over two seasons while playing for Baker in Chicago. And Joey Votto blossomed into the National League MVP in 2010 playing for Baker. The new manager knows how to deal with star power.

With Anthony Rendon moving back to third base in 2016, a decision will be made on what to do with Yunel Escobar. The 33-year-old was one of the Nationals’ offensive leaders last season, batting .314. With the likely loss of Desmond, Escobar could shift over to shortstop where he mostly played in his previous eight seasons before arriving in D.C. The Nats could also try again with the original plan to get Escobar comfortable at second base. Or they could use his hot-hitting season as trade bait with rookie Trea Turner available to take over at shortstop and Danny Espinosa more than capable at second base.

The Nationals need depth in the outfield, as well. Michael A. Taylor figures to replace Span as the team’s everyday center fielder, but the 24-year-old desperately needs to find consistency at the plate. Jayson Werth dealt with injuries and missed large chunks of the season leading to timing issues and poor results. A left-handed-hitting outfielder could spell the 36-year-old Werth throughout the 162-game season.

“We were looking for a manager to help us achieve our ultimate goal of competing for a World Series championship,” said Theodore N. Lerner, managing principal owner of the Nationals in a team-issued press release announcing the hiring of Baker this morning.

Now it’s up to Rizzo and Baker to work past the most recent debacle and build a roster - and enough mutual trust - that the Nationals can realize their lofty expectations.

Note: The Nationals will introduce Baker at Nationals Park on Thursday at 11 a.m. The press conference will be carried live on MASN.

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