- - Friday, October 20, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Let’s imagine how the interviews will go with candidates for the now-vacant Washington Nationals managerial job.

“You know, your job security depends on getting this team at least to the National League Championship Series. Any less, and you’ll be fired. Win 97 games and back-to-back division titles? We don’t care. And, by the way, we’re going to pay you less than probably any manager in baseball.

“So do you want the job?”

That’s the job for whoever follows future Hall of Fame manager Dusty Baker, who will not be coming back for a third season as Nationals manager.

“Our expectations have grown to the fact that winning a lot of regular-season games and winning divisions are not enough,” team president Mike Rizzo told reporters in a conference call Friday hours after the team announced Baker would not return as manager. “Our goal is to win the world championship.”

Or else you’re fired.

I remember a January 2007 panel at George Washington University that included New York Yankees president Randy Levine and fellow GW alumnus and Nationals owner Ted Lerner. Levine said that the pressures in New York dictated the goal for the team each and every year was to win the World Series.

Lerner said jokingly, “We’re not really concerned with winning the World Series this year.”

I guess that’s changed. I guess the Nationals have become the Yankees. But the old dysfunctional George Steinbrenner Yankees – except without the pinstripes and tradition.

What the Nationals are within the industry of baseball is a laughingstock – and the dismissal of Baker only adds to that, because everyone in the business knows that this was an ownership driven move.

Rizzo, as he has so many times before, was the good soldier and took the hits for the Lerners, insisting to reporters on a conference call Friday afternoon that this “was one of the most difficult decisions that the ownership group and myself had to make since we’ve been here with Washington.”

The difficult decision for Rizzo may have been not to quit.

Make no mistake about it, the decision not to bring back Baker, who had been working on a two-year contract, was made by the owners – the Lerner family – and not Rizzo, who has been knee-capped by owners in nearly every managing decision.

He wanted Baker back at the start of this season and asked the Lerners to negotiate a contract extension. They said not now. They were dealing with cost overruns at their new West Palm Beach spring training facility. Rizzo asked them again in the middle of the season, and the Lerners said not now. They were upset about reports that Baker was grousing about his lack of a contract beyond 2017. And Rizzo wanted to bring him back after the Game 5 loss to the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series.

More than a week later, the Lerners said no.

Now whoever manages this team will have the baggage of handling Bryce Harper’s final contract year in Washington. Harper hardly gave Baker a ringing endorsement when asked after game five about Baker’s future in Washington, Harper told reporters, “I think that decision is made from up top, I don’t want to comment on that really.”

That’s a big difference from September 2015, when Harper was asked about soon-to-be-fired manager Matt Williams and responded, “”I love him as a manager. If I didn’t, everybody would know it,” Harper said. “He wants us to be perfect and I love that.”

Harper is not the only one entering his contract season. Rizzo’s deal also ends in 2018, and you have to wonder how much more is he willing to take and save the Lerners from their own petty indulgences.

Rizzo wanted to bring Davey Johnson back after the 2012 NL East division title on a multi-year deal. But the Lerners balked, saying they were not going to pay Johnson what he wanted — $4 million — for more than one season, and only if Johnson agreed to retire after that.

Rizzo wanted to hire Cal Ripken to replace Johnson, but the Lerners balked at the money it would cost to hire the baseball icon, and instead, settled for Williams. And Rizzo initially wanted Bud Black – who got a three-year deal with the Colorado Rockies last winter and led them to the wild card this season – instead of Baker, but the Lerners drove Black away with a low ball one-year, $1.6 million offer.

You have to wonder who they will get to manage a team with World Series expectations for a minimum-wage contract. More importantly, you have to wonder if this is the last time Mike Rizzo takes a shot to the knees.

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

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