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Did the Nationals screw up and hire the right manager?

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The Nats may not have gotten their first choice, but the manager they hired may be better equipped to lead them back to the playoffs.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Last night, the deal the Nationals were trying to negotiate with Bud Black fell apart when the Lerners, who own the Nats, lowballed their preferred candidate. Insulted, Black decided to back out of negotiations, leaving the Nats to turn to their second choice, veteran manager Dusty Baker. It was, by all accounts, a real shitshow that underscored how little stock the Lerners place in finding the right manager and how little they care about paying the going rate. That's not necessarily a mistake though. That's a choice. So what are the ramifications of that choice? What does this mean for the Nationals?

Is Bud Black a better manager than Dusty Baker?

Ultimately, this is the biggest and most relevant question for the Nats. Did the Lerners' thriftiness make the team worse? And, frankly, I don't see a lot of evidence that it did. Black boasts over eight years at the helm of the Padres, during which time his clubs finished above .500 twice and never made the playoffs. He did win Manager of the Year in 2010, but given that the Nationals just fired the 2014 Manager of the Year, how much is that really worth? Overall, his .477 winning percentage simply isn't impressive.

That isn't to say Black is a bad manager. He had to manage some bad teams and bad players in San Diego, thanks to the team's low payroll. He didn't draft or trade for any of them. That said, he didn't seem to get the most out of them either. Yonder Alonso never developed under him. Jedd Gyorko took steps back. Look, Black is incredibly well-respected, but there isn't a lot of evidence that he helped elevate the players under him.

Baker, on the other hand, has an extensive track record of successes. He shepherded the Giants through the Barry Bonds era, finding a way for disparate personalities like Bonds and Jeff Kent to play together without murdering each other. He took the Cubs to within a couple outs of the World Series. He led the Reds to three 90 win seasons in six years. He has three Manager of the Year Awards (again, grain of salt), and a pennant. He is 1671-1504 for his career. He has weaknesses as a skipper, sure, but those have been effectively blunted by his ability to keep his teams pointed in the right direction.

Is Dusty Baker the right manager for the Nationals?

This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. Baker's strength has always been in the way he handles his players, and keeps his teams focused. Again, he kept the Bonds/Kent feud from boiling over. He kept Carlos Zambrano in check. Perhaps no other manager alive is better equipped to deal with managing Bryce Harper and the other strong personalities in the Nationals' clubhouse, and to get the most out of them.

Baker's reputation has been that he ruined arms, and I can understand the trepidation Washington fans might have when he gets near the Nats' vaunted pitching staff. In particular, people like to point to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in 2003 as evidence. Wood (26), Prior (22), and Carlos Zambrano (22) all wound up in the top ten for pitches thrown in the National League in 2003. All three would see their careers end early because of injuries. As little as we know about how exactly pitching injuries work, it's unlikely that this is a complete coincidence (even though Baker's responsibility with Wood is mitigated by the three years of damage done to him by Jim Riggleman, Don Baylor, and Bruce Kimm before him). While the National League's pitchers were averaging 94 pitches per start, the Cubs were averaging 104, including a ridiculous 113 from Prior. That was awful and inexcusable, even in the early days before monitoring pitchers was universally considered important.

But look at the following table, which shows the number of pitches thrown by Baker's starters compared to the league average:

Year

Team

P/GS

Lg P/GS

Diff

1993

Giants

87

93

-6

1994

Giants

91

94

-3

1995

Giants

90

92

-2

1996

Giants

98

93

5

1997

Giants

95

95

0

1998

Giants

95

95

0

1999

Giants

104

96

8

2000

Giants

102

97

5

2001

Giants

100

94

6

2002

Giants

101

93

8

2003

Cubs

104

94

10

2004

Cubs

99

94

5

2005

Cubs

98

95

3

2006

Cubs

92

94

-2

2008

Reds

98

94

4

2009

Reds

99

95

4

2010

Reds

98

96

2

2011

Reds

96

96

0

2012

Reds

98

94

4

2013

Reds

95

94

1

Yes, there is no doubt that Baker overworked his starters from 1999-2003. But what we can also see is that Baker presumably learned from the experience. While he still rides his starters slightly more than an average manager, he has severely cut back on that tendency either on his own initiative or under the instruction of his club's general manager. Presumably, then, someone like Mike Rizzo will have the authority to make sure Baker dials it back on guys like Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, to ensure that they remain healthy. Assuming that there is that control in place, Baker looks like he might just be the steady hand the Nationals need after an embarrassing season in which they imploded publicly and privately.

Were the Lerners wrong to lowball Bud Black?

Well, that's a complicated question too. Their offer clearly insulted Black, according to Adam Kilgore, and was less than the going rate for a veteran manager in the Major Leagues. Plus, the Lerners have a history of underwhelming their managerial candidates, signing them for "short money for short deals." Implicit in the argument is that what the Lerners have done is wrong because it's cheap and it's not what the rest of the league does.

That may be a fair criticism. The Lerners are definitely underbidding the rest of the market. But they also are in a position of incredible power. There are only 30 available managerial jobs, and the overwhelming majority of managerial candidates can't afford to turn down an opportunity like Bud Black just did. Frankly, if we subscribe to the theory that the manager matters far less than the general manager and the players who that GM assembles, the Lerners' behavior is fairly rational. Especially after the Matt Williams fiasco, why would they want to commit extra money and years to a manager who might not be the right fit?

What does Bud Black do now?

There are only 30 available jobs for managers in the Major Leagues at any time, and Black just turned one down. So where does he go from here?

First, let's remember that Black has presumably socked enough money away over the years that he doesn't need to work. He made over $14 million as a player, and presumably more than that as a manager. If he doesn't ever get another job in baseball, Bud Black is going to be ok.

That said, there's still the Dodgers' job available. While they have focused in on former players who have never managed at the big league level before, they may adjust their strategy knowing that Black is available. There are also any number of front office positions or coaching gigs or broadcasting opportunities available to a guy with Black's background. If he wants to work, Black will, and if he wants to be a managerial candidate either during the season or the next offseason, he will still be a viable candidate. Indeed, as Dusty Baker proved, there are still jobs out there for experienced managers with a good reputation.

Can the Nationals make the playoffs in 2016 with Baker?

Absolutely. Bryce Harper will presumably come back to earth a little, but Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Strasburg will all be available for the full season. They need Michael Taylor to develop in center field and some kind of contribution from A.J. Cole or Lucas Giolito, but the Nats have the tools to be a contender in 2016. They are what they were, a weird mix of young and old players, with several brittle pieces. The club requires a bullpen overhaul and some additional depth, but with a little luck they absolutely can challenge the Mets next year.