Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Is Dusty Baker the right man for the job?

Feelings were mixed around the Reds fan base when the team announced it had extended the contract of manager Dusty Baker for another two seasons. Some were clamoring for the organization to replace Baker with a new skipper, while others were adamant about bringing the 63-year old back. The difference in opinion obviously leaves several questions up for debate. Among them includes perhaps the greatest question of all: Is Dusty Baker the right man for the job?

I have been on both sides of the spectrum regarding Baker since he took the reigns in Cincinnati prior to the 2008 campaign. I have gone through periods where I believed Baker is one of the best coaches in the modern game, and I've also gone through phases where I hoped the front office would replace him. But after letting all of the emotions settle from what was a brutally disappointing end to the 2012 year, in addition to some careful reflection, I believe Baker is the right man for the job.

Although some of the criticism directed toward Baker during his tenure in Cincy has been deserved, I have never seen such animosity held by a fan base toward their coach as I have with Cincinnati's. And I find that both puzzling and troubling. Although Baker's time here hasn't produced the results (yet) that most would have hoped for, he has still being relatively more successful than those that have come before him.

Baker is 419-391 in 5 seasons with CIN

Baker led the Redlegs to the playoffs for the second time in three years this season and came within one win of boasting the best record in Major League Baseball. Baker also became only the third manager in franchise history to lead the team to the playoffs more than once (Bill McKechnie, 1939, '40; Sparky Anderson, 1970, '72, '73, '75, '76). Additionally, the club was able to win their first postseason game since 1995 when they took Game One of the NLDS in San Francisco. Oh, and did I mention that he accomplished all of this without the benefit of his best player for nearly two months out of the season?

But as we all know, past success doesn't necessarily guarantee success in the future. However, recent history suggests that this Reds team is primed for greater things in the coming years. They return a nucleus of young stars on the verge of stardom in Mat Latos, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, Homer Bailey, and Johnny Cueto to go alongside established veterans such as Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Bronson Arroyo. That's not even mentioning a whole cast of role players and/or potential stars in the likes of Todd Frazier, Ryan Hanigan, and Zack Cozart, among others.

The key to keeping the momentum rolling is continuity, and that meant retaining the services of Johnnie B. Baker. Another skipper would have automatically called for a transitioning period as players would have to deal with familiarizing themselves with the new head man. And tabbing a different skipper wouldn't guarantee greater results either. It would be a gamble like anything else, but why roll the dice when you know that you are getting winning seasons out of Baker? This Reds team is on the brink of breaking through and it would have been a grave mistake had they given the axe to Baker in favor of someone else.

Dusty loves toothpicks...
and sweatbands too!

Many critics will point to the NLDS where Cincinnati executed one of the worst meltdowns in postseason history as the sole reason Baker had to go. Despite leading 2-0 and heading home for three tries to win one game to advance to the NLCS, the Reds allowed the Giants to come back and thus became the first NL team in history to lose in the LDS after leading 2-0. It was a terrible way to end what had been a magical season up until that point, and virtually all of the blame for the colossal chokejob was cast on Baker. While I would certainly agree that he deserved to bear at least part of the burden, I was surprised to see how little blame was directed toward the players. After all, they had just squandered a monumental opportunity away themselves after playing so poorly for three straight games.

But in the end, pointing fingers does nothing to help change what is already done. The Reds were obviously dealt a huge setback when their undisputed ace Johnny Cueto exited Game One after throwing just eight pitches. The diagnosis was a right oblique strain and it was serious enough to have Mike Leake replace him on the roster. The Reds could very well be still playing right now had it not be for the crippling injury to Cueto, and this debate about whether or not Baker's contract should have been extended would be viewed as crazy talk.

Yet here we are, discussing the 2013 season and beyond, and what course of action GM Walt Jocketty and CEO Bob Castellini should have taken. I for one believe they made the right decision this time around. Yes, Baker's lineups don't always make the best of sense. Yes, Baker has been guilty of making some faulty in-game decisions. And yes, he chews way more than his fair share of toothpicks. But the players respect, know, and like him and he seems to be moving the organization in the right direction. I may not always agree with his strategy, but I'm willing to stick with him as the Reds continue to strive toward winning a title.

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