- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2017

Before chatting with general manager Mike Rizzo, Dusty Baker had just come over to shake hands with Adam Eaton, who was leaning on a crutch with a curved handle. The single silver stick allowed Eaton to balance and defer weight from his surgically repaired left ACL and onto his right leg.

Rizzo had just finished talking with the media about upcoming Major League Baseball draft, which starts Monday. At the end of his conversation, Rizzo was asked about Baker’s contractual status.

“It’s not going to be an issue,” Rizzo said. “We’re not going to let it be an issue. Dusty is a true professional, been through the rigors of the regular season a million times. I’ve been through it a million times. Suffice to say, there’s great communication, great respect between the front office and the managerial office.”

Baker is in the final season of his two-year deal with the Nationals. He feels negotiation leverage has shifted from when Baker was hired to replace Matt Williams after three years out of the game. Washington chose to pivot from Williams’ rigidity to a Baker’s vivaciousness. But, it’s key to recall that Bud Black was presumed to be the next manager, even by Baker. Baker said before he was hired that he believed he was out of the running for the job. Mix that situation with Baker’s desperation to return to the dugout, and his past circumstances were decidedly different than they are in early June of 2017.

Baker led the Nationals to a division title last season. They are again in first place with a bear-trap’s grip on the lead. They have scored the most runs in the National League. The top of their rotation is likely going to the All-Star Game. In all, Washington has five players with clears paths to Miami on July 11. The playoffs are a logical conclusion based on the 59 games of the season for a team that leads the NL in winning percentage.

Even before the crisp start, Baker believed he deserved an extension. There was passing thought that it could happen during spring training. Instead, the Lerner family has maintained their approach from the past. The organization wins enough that a manager almost appears a plug-in option instead of a vital one. Since 2012, the Nationals have been to the playoffs three times. They have also gone through three managers — Davey Johnson, Matt Williams and Baker — during that span. That doesn’t include the stunning departure of Jim Riggleman the season before.

Johnson, Riggleman and Baker have something in common beyond managing the Nationals. They wanted extensions before they were offered. Riggleman took the rare step of leaving in the middle of a good situation because he did not receive what he wanted. Now, the Lerner family is waiting on Baker’s contract, akin to how it dragged out Rizzo’s extension last season, again slow-playing a successful manager.

Rizzo jumped to the defense of process Friday.

“The way that we describe it, is we do business the way we’ve done business for a long time and we’ve done it very successfully,” Rizzo said. “The fact that anonymous sources say certain things about how we handle things…couldn’t be farther from the truth. We’re an organization that does the business the way we do it. It’s been successful for many, many years. Probably as successful as any team in Major League Baseball. We’re going to continue to do business the way we do it. And, we’re not going to allow it to be a distraction because we have too many things to accomplish this year. And, everyone is on the same page to accomplish them.”

Rizzo was alluding to a quote in The Washington Post that suggested the Lerners were the only thing holding back the team, calling their general reticence to spend money, “the problem.”

It’s unclear where Baker feels the issue is pinpointed. What’s certain is his desire for a new contract at a higher rate. He reportedly is being paid $4 million for his two years of service. That haul is well below that of managers like San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy and Chicago Joe Maddon. There is one other difference for those two: They each have won the World Series as a manager. Should Baker pull that off, he’ll find an express path to his next contract, one that may even be fast enough to make him forget how long it took in the first place.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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