Baker has the best job opportunity … and the worst

February 9th, 2020

Of all the things I could have told you a year ago that would be true on Feb. 6, 2020, there aren’t many you would have believed less than “Dusty Baker will be the manager of the Houston Astros.”

The confluences of circumstances that had to come together for such a statement to be true boggles the mind and confounds the senses, but nevertheless, it is true. Dusty Baker is going to be the manager of the American League-champion Astros. In a baseball universe that has been radically transformed by the analytic revolution, Jeff Luhnow is gone, and Dusty Baker is still standing.

Dusty Baker is going to be managing in the All-Star Game this year. What a world.

But while the immensely popular 70-year-old manager is being celebrated around the sport as the one who can bring stability to a suddenly unsettled franchise, all is not roses and sunshine for Baker. You can make an argument that he has been given an incredible opportunity. You can also make an argument that he has a near-impossible assignment. Does Dusty Baker have the best kind of managerial opportunity, or the worst kind?

Let’s explore the cases for both.

Dusty Baker has the best job, what a lucky guy.

1. Man, what a roster.
I suppose it is theoretically possible that no one on the Astros actually has any baseball talent at all and has only been benefiting their entire Astros careers from a series of bangs on a trash can, but, uh, it’s pretty unlikely. This is still a team that has won 100-plus games for three consecutive years, and most of those players are still here. There are 10 new managers in Major League Baseball this year, and none of them are coming into a situation with even close to as much talent as the Astros. Their lineup currently boasts, in no particular order, George Springer, José Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick and Martín Maldonado. What manager wouldn’t salivate over writing down that lineup every day? Oh, and Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and all sorts of other excellent pitchers are around, too. The team remains stacked.

2. You have an extremely engaged and dedicated fan base.
The Astros were ninth in the Majors in attendance last year, and we’ve all seen the last few years how loud and crazy that Minute Maid Park crowd can get. Astros fans may have been embarrassed and demoralized by the scandal this offseason, but when push comes to shove, this is their team. You think an Astros fan is going to stop cheering for Altuve -- perhaps the most beloved Astros player ever -- because of this?

If anything, Astros fans are more likely to rally around this team; nothing rallies your supporters more than feeling like the whole world’s against you. (And Astros fans, you should know: The whole world is against you.) Every manager wants an engaged and dedicated fan base. Dusty Baker’s going to have that this year.

3. Everybody loves you and wants you to finally win that title.
Seriously, there aren’t many more widely admired figures in Major League Baseball than Dusty Baker. Lambasted a couple of decades ago (somewhat unfairly) for Mark Prior’s injuries and the Cubs’ collapse in the 2003 National League Championship Series, Baker is now universally respected as a player’s manager who has won for every organization he’s been a part of. He won 103 games in his first season with the Giants way back in 1993 (and missed the playoffs!), and he has kept winning ever since. He led the Giants, the Cubs, the Reds and the Nationals all to the postseason. Sure, his postseason record is 23-32, but the hard part is getting to the postseason; much (not all, but much) of what happens after that is subject to winds of chance.

Three of the four teams he’s managed won a World Series after he left (eight years later in San Francisco, 10 years later in Chicago, two years later in Washington), which has led him to Dan Marino-esque “best manager who hasn’t won a title” status. No matter how much people might dislike the Astros right now, it would be impossible not to be happy for Dusty Baker winning that elusive ring. (As a manager anyway: He did win the World Series as a player with the Dodgers in 1981.)

And now, for the other side of the coin …

Dusty Baker is set up to lose and has no chance.

1. Your team is now the villain of the sport.
Seriously, everyone hates your team. In his 19-year career, Baker was only hit by a pitch 30 times. It is very possible that the Astros will surpass that total by May. Remember how Baker and Tony La Russa used to always be glowering at each other when they faced off in the NL Central, absolutely convinced the other was purposely throwing at their batters? This year, Dusty, the other team is definitely throwing at your batters.

The rest of baseball trying to get revenge on the Astros for their illegal sign-stealing is going to be a subplot of every single Astros game and something Baker will have to deal with constantly. And we haven’t even gotten into how opposing fans will treat the Astros. Players will be booed every at-bat, there will be “CHEATERS” signs all around every ballpark and you can guarantee some feisty organists are going to play some “Your Cheatin’ Heart” every time you come into town. Media will follow you everywhere, and you’ll have to answer the same questions at the start of every road trip. A large part of the job of a manager these days is to be a conduit to the media. Well, Dusty, you’re about to face a lot of media.

2. Are you sure the organizational sensibility and yours are really a match?
Jeff Luhnow and Brandon Taubman are gone, but both of those gentlemen hired a lot of similarly analytically minded people to work for them, and most of them are still there. And new general manager James Click is cut straight from analytical central casting. He worked for the Rays, went to Yale and wrote for Baseball Prospectus.

Much of the criticism of Baker’s managerial strategies over the years has been overblown, but that said, he is definitely not cut from the same cloth as your average baseball manager. (He is Michael Brantley years older -- 32 -- than Twins manager Rocco Baldelli and Mets manager Luis Rojas.) You don’t think he’s going to butt heads with the spreadsheet kids in the front office? Nationals fans may have loved Dusty, but they will also tell you that not every decision he made during his two years in Washington felt particularly informed by advanced analysis. That’s not going to come to a head at some point? There is absolutely going to be a tie game on the road that the Astros lose because Baker didn’t bring in Roberto Osuna because “it wasn’t a save situation.” That’s the opposite of how the Astros have run their team for the last half-decade. They’re suddenly going to be OK with that now?

3. Everybody already expects you to win. So you better win.
The heads of Astros players, fans and staff have to all be still spinning right now. It has been as tumultuous an offseason as is perhaps humanly possible. It may take a month or more into the regular season to get everyone to slow down and start playing regular baseball again. The Astros are favored to win the AL West again. But it’s not a slam dunk. The A’s won 97 games last year and look just as good this year. The Angels have Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon and Shohei Ohtani. The Rangers may have the deepest rotation in the division.

Even if the Astros do win the division, are they likely to win 107 games like they did in 2019? Or 103 like they did in 2018? Or 101 like they did in 2017? Dusty Baker could win 95 games this year, and the Astros would still be 12 games worse than they were last year. And what if they win fewer than that? Who will get the blame? Who will have to answer the questions about it? It’ll be Dusty.

Dusty Baker is a smart man, and as experienced a manager as any in the sport. But he’s never faced a situation like this, because no one has. He has the best opportunity. And he has the worst opportunity. I wish him good luck. He will absolutely need it.

All told: I tend to think when you get a chance to take over a team with World Series-winning talent -- and you've famously never won one -- you've got to take it. It seems like a perfect gig for Dusty. But ... ask me again in October.