Monday, August 13, 2012

Dusty Baker making strong case for NL Manager of the Year honors

Here we are on an off-day for the Reds in the middle of August. The team sits comfortably atop the National League Central standings with a record of 69-46 -- the second-best record in all of Major League Baseball. They hold a 4.5 game lead over the second-place Pirates and a 7.0 game advantage over the defending World Series champion Cardinals. And for the last month, manager Dusty Baker has been juggling a makeshift lineup without the benefit of having his best player, and perhaps the best hitter in the league, Joey Votto.

Despite the pundits and critics around Cincinnati who clamor for Baker to be fired on a daily basis, I believe the job he has done in 2012 speaks for itself. After getting off to a slow start out of the gate, Cincinnati has been red-hot since the All-Star Break. In fact, their 22-8 mark in the second half is the best by far of any club in MLB. Yes, they have prospered from feasting on a weak schedule (20 of last 23 games have been versus teams with losing records), but they have also been dealt some major curveballs by the injury bug.

Votto, who was leading the world in just about every offensive category at the time of his injury, hasn't sniffed the field in over four weeks, and likely won't for another 5-7 days after having yet another procedure done to remove a "floating piece of cartilage" on Friday. Meanwhile, 37-year old Scott Rolen continues to be ailed by nagging injuries that are consistently causing him to miss time here and there. Rookie Devin Mesoraco and All-Star second basemen Brandon Phillips both recently missed some action due to injury as well.

It would also be easy to forget about the absences of relievers Nick Masset, Ryan Madson, and Bill Bray for all or most of the campaign. All three figured to be key pieces of the bullpen heading into the season, yet the Reds still boast the majors' top bullpen ERA (2.66) without them. Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman has much to do with that.

Aside from injuries alone, Dusty Baker has done well to push all of the right buttons at the right times this year. Under his watch, we've seen the budding of rookie Todd Frazier (.280/14HR/48RBI) turn into one of the most productive, valuable, and versatile players on the roster in addition to the resurgence of Ryan Ludwick (.266/21HR/63RBI), who's making a strong case for NL Comeback Player of the Year. The starting rotation has been a force to be reckoned with as well led by Johnny Cueto (16-5) and Mat Latos (10-3).

The fact that Baker has led this club to this point without the aid of a good bench should be noted too. Though Xavier Paul (.344/.417/.406) has been a welcome addition since joining the team a month ago, Miguel Cairo (.157/.179/.222), Wilson Valdez (.217/.246/.242), and Mesoraco (.218/.297/.367) have been utter disappointments. That's not to mention other reserve players who no longer hold a spot on the current roster in Willie Harris (.111/.100/.444) and Mike Costanzo (1-18).

But even with all of the managerial success that Baker has enjoyed so far, it should be said that this is precisely what fans and experts expected out of this team in Spring Training. The Reds fell in the position as favorites almost by default after a series of offseason departures left the division ripe for the taking. The Cardinals were hit with the loss of their best player (Albert Pujols) and manager (Tony La Russa) and the Brewers saw one of their stars walk away (Prince Fielder) in free agency as well. The Pirates held steady with a competitive roster and the Cubs and Astros were destined for a rebuilding season from the beginning. That left Cincinnati with the best returning roster and a couple of new acquisitions to lay claim to the division crown. Simply put, anything less than a first-place finish would not be acceptable.

Even still, there's something to be said for living up to expectations, and through 115 games this season that's exactly what Baker and Cincy have done. In 2010, it was a different story for this organization. They emerged as division champs from seemingly nowhere; with no pre-season pressure to win the crown. With increased expectations in 2011, the team took a massive step back and failed miserably to repeat the success they enjoyed the year prior. A string of tough luck, below-average individual performance, and injuries derailed any ambitions of a second straight playoff berth.

But 2012 is different. No longer are the pressures of high expectations too heavy for the team to bear. No longer is the team content with just a postseason appearance. No, this campaign feels different. It's already had its share of memorable moments and figures to hold many more in the weeks ahead.

If you had to cast a vote for National League Manager of the Year at this very moment, one would have to be realistic enough to tab Dusty Baker with their choice. Even though the Nationals currently own baseball's best record (71-44), skipper Davey Johnson has had the benefit of a talent-infused, youth movement in Washington. Clint Hurdle has certainly done a great job in Pittsburgh, as the Buccos look poised to shed 19 consecutive years of losing by posting their first winning season since 1992. However, which manager has done more with less and faced more adversity this season than Baker? Answer: none. As one source close to the Reds told me back in April, "there's more managing that goes on in the clubhouse than anything we see on the field." Baker, who has a reputation of being a player's manager, is most definitely testiment to this.

And with Baker leading the charge into the end of the regular season, the Queen City could be celebrating the ultimate prize come late-October -- a sixth World Series title in franchise history.

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