- - Thursday, June 15, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If the Lerners are waiting to see how Dusty Baker handles a bullpen before they pay him, they should have given him a bullpen first.

The pen has been an open wound on an otherwise seemingly-healthy Washington Nationals team, still comfortably in first place by a wide margin in the National League East. Each meltdown brings with it a wave of anger and finger-pointing.

Most of those fingers have pointed at general manager Mike Rizzo and the bullpen he assembled, though before the start of the season most of the media that covers this team heralded the bullpen — save for the lack of an established closer — as a team strength.

No one, though, wants to hear that. They see Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer turn in quality starts, only to see wins turn into losses, and they target their wrath at the man in charge of building this roster. That would be Rizzo.

It’s difficult for fans to look behind the curtain and consider payroll budget restrictions put in place by Nationals owners, and understand that the money for a better bullpen is sitting behind the plate in the form of catcher Matt Wieters, when suddenly $20 million that wasn’t there before became available to sign a Scott Boras’ client. It’s too murky.

Dusty Baker’s contract, though — that may be another matter. The uncertainty of the future beyond this season of one of the most respected managers in the game may give fans a better look at the dysfunction of the Lerner’s ownership, despite the success of the team year after year.

Baker is a lame duck manager, with no guarantee to return after this season. Normally that often creates issues in a clubhouse. Players with long-term contracts who disagree with the manager can simply dismiss him, noting that they will be here when he is long gone.

That is what drove manager Jim Riggleman to try to force the Nationals’ hand halfway through the 2011 season. He was clashing with Jayson Werth, who was in second year of his seven-year, $126 million contract, and demanded a contract extension from the Lerners beyond that season to give him the power he needed in the clubhouse.

His execution — resigning — was all wrong, but his demands were all right.

Baker, though, is not Riggleman. He is a three-time manager of the year with more than 1,800 career wins, with a National League East division title last year and a record of 133-91 to date as Washington’s manager. He has reached royalty status within the game, and no player is likely going to disrespect Baker, no matter his contract status.

The Lerners, though, are exploiting that respect by failing to commit to Baker beyond this year — and in turn showing him a lack of respect. Even Matt Williams, after his Nationals team won the 2014 NL East title, was rewarded when the team picked up his option for 2016.

Instead of thanking their lucky stars for having a manager like Baker, the Nationals owners chose to question his ability to lead this team, failing to realize what a mess things were before they signed Baker to a two-year, $4 million contract in the winter of 2015 — $4 million less than he was getting in his previous job in Cincinnati in 2013.

The Lerners clearly have little respect for the role of manager, treating it like someone who would manage one of their office buildings.

The process that led to Baker’s signing illustrated the value the Lerners place on managers. They reportedly offered former Padres manager Bud Black a one-year, $1.6 million contract — woefully below what would be acceptable market value. Those talks broke down, as Black was “deeply offended” by the offer. Fortunately for the Lerners, Baker was on the market as well.

As we see from the performance of the Colorado Rockies this season — first place in the NL West — Black, who signed a three-year deal last November with Colorado, is a good manager. So is Baker.

So was Davey Johnson, and baseball operations wanted to sign him to a long-term contract. But the Lerners, forced to pay Johnson a market-level salary in 2013 after he led the Nationals to the 2012 NL East championship, offered $4 million that year only if he agreed to retire at the end of the season. The Lerners were not about to commit that kind of money long-term to a manager.

They would replace Johnson with Williams, but not before there were talks that took place with Cal Ripken to manage in Washington. Those talks ended quickly, though, when the Lerners made it clear they would not pay Ripken’s asking price.

The Lerners may not value the manager’s role in the success of a team — at least not like the rest of the industry does. One time, though, they did.

In 2007, the Nationals were the laughingstock of baseball, with a roster that many observers expected to lose more than the 1962 New York Mets, who went 40-120. When first-year manager Manny Acta led that squad to a 73-89 record, the Lerners were so happy they gave Acta a bonus that was not in his contract.

Rewarding a losing record — the lone time the Lerners seemed to realize the value of a good manager.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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