What’s in Dusty Baker’s future?

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With Opening Day closing in, we’re doing a few short posts on the major storylines that will likely dominate your conversations about the Reds this season. You can find the previous installment, about Devin Mesoraco, here.

It appears we can add a few names to the list of people who are skeptical about Dusty Baker. In addition to pretty much every Reds fan ever, Bob Castellini and Walt Jocketty seem uneasy about the Reds’ skipper. At the very least, they’re waiting to commit longterm: Baker’s contract expires at the end of the year, and his lameduck status—and how that status will affect his managing—remains one of this season’s defining questions.

Before we get to Baker’s shortcomings, though, we should note what he’s good at. I’d say the biggest positive is that he’s a “player’s manager.” This is one of those hoary cliches that is easy to ignore and impossible to prove. Still, there’s something to it. A couple years ago, this magazine interviewed Joey Votto and asked him why Baker was a good guy to play for:

       Well, first of all, you’re assured of never getting blown up in the newspaper. So you wake up in the morning, and if you do happen to read the newspaper, or check the Internet, you know that he’s not going to throw you under the bus. That does two things: That gives you peace of mind to know that you don’t have to look over your shoulder every time you make a mistake, and the other thing is you want to play for the guy. You want to play for him because he’s got your back. He gives you more reasons beyond just doing your job to dig a little deeper, get a little more out of yourself. Because you play 162 games. There’s gonna be a lull here and there.

Another thing in Baker’s favor is that he’s experienced. That seems like faint praise, but it’s not. The key to understanding many of the Reds’ moves under Castellini has been the management of risk: The team’s owner values loyalty, caution, and reliability. That’s why this offseason’s trade for Mat Latos felt like such a pleasant surprise. Castellini is normally a far more predictable guy, and Baker was a predictable hire.

But Walt Jocketty was a predictable hire, too, and he and Baker seem to be clashing. At the end of last year’s lost season, Baker kept playing old hands like Miguel Cairo instead of seeing what his younger players could do. This spring, after Ryan Madson went down, Reds fans rejoiced that Jocketty had traded for (and extended) Sean Marshall. Then Baker started saying exceedingly strange things about closers needing to pitch three days in a row. As Steve Mancuso explains at RedLegNation, Marshall is very good at pitching three days in a row. He’s very good at pitching, period. But Baker keeps intoning to reporters that “I was told that with Marshall, you’ve got to try to stay away from him going three days in a row.”

This kind of Ptolemaic nonsense is Baker’s most obvious flaw. But what makes it especially interesting, this year, is the way it contradicts with Jocketty’s strategy. The manager and GM also seem to be at odds over the handling of Aroldis Chapman. These conflicts remain mostly hearsay since another Castellini Commandment is don’t leak to the press. (Recall that reporters didn’t even mention Latos’s name until after he was already a Red.) But one thing to watch as this season unfolds is how Baker gets treated by the media. If you start to see “sources” sniping at the Reds’ manager, you’ll know that the team’s ownership is ready to move on. Of course, Baker will know it, too. Then the question becomes how this will affect his running of the Reds.

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