HOUSTON -- Dusty Baker said all the right things and appeared energized for the challenge of trying to win an elusive World Series championship as a manager when he was introduced by the Astros as AJ Hinch's replacement on Thursday.
That’s the only remaining achievement for the 70-year-old to accomplish, and managing the Astros gives him a realistic opportunity. They return the core of the team that won 107 games last year and lost in seven games to the Nationals in the World Series. The signing of Gerrit Cole by the Yankees likely swings the pendulum of power in the American League toward the Bronx, but Houston remains poised to contend.
Here are five questions surrounding the hiring of Baker as the 19th full-time manager in Astros history
1) How will he handle the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal?
One of the two reasons Astros owner Jim Crane hired Baker is his solid reputation in the game. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in baseball with something bad to say about Baker, who’s managed through a crisis before when Barry Bonds was chasing the all-time home run record while battling steroid accusations in San Francisco. Baker brings a level-headed and steady voice that will resonate with the players and with the media. And he also won’t put up with any nonsense. When asked about stealing signs on Thursday, Baker said it wouldn’t happen under his watch. There’s no reason not to believe him, but the Astros will face fan and media scrutiny as they tour the country in 2020. It’s up to Baker to keep the team focused on the task at hand.
2) As the oldest manager in the big leagues, how much fire is left in his belly?
Baker joked about going into his attic and trying to find his baseball gear and found what turned out to be an empty bag. Not to worry. The Astros will provide Baker with all the equipment he needs -- wristbands included. While Baker was content with being retired, there was something missing. That something was a World Series ring as a manager, and when Crane called him and asked him to interview in mid-January, he immediately became reenergized. He’s only on a one-year contract (with a team option for ’21) so there’s no reason Baker can’t pour his heart and soul into the job for at least one year to try for a championship.
3) Is he ready to embrace analytics?
The narrative that the game has passed by Baker at 70 years old is overblown. After all, it was only three years ago when a 67-year-old Baker led the Nationals to back-to-back division titles. Sure, the Astros are at the forefront of analytics and will remain so. Baker will be buoyed by a coaching staff that champions the benefits of analytics, including bench coach Joe Espada, an up-and-coming managerial candidate. Despite the firings of president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow and assistant GM Brandon Taubman, the Astros’ front office remains well equipped to put Baker in position to succeed through research and development.
4) How will he replace Gerrit Cole?
When asked Thursday what his biggest challenge will be in 2020, Baker paused for a few seconds before lamenting the loss of Cole -- the workhorse starting pitcher who signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees. That blows a huge hole in Houston’s rotation behind Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. During Spring Training, Baker will have plenty of time to watch potential rotation candidates like José Urquidy, Brad Peacock, Austin Pruitt and Francis Martes, among others. Lance McCullers Jr. returns to the field in 2020 following Tommy John surgery, but he’s likely not going to be able to throw anywhere close to 200 innings. Baker’s biggest on-field challenge may be the back of the rotation.
5) Can Baker finally win a championship?
That’s why he’s in Houston, for one final shot. Baker’s postseason track record isn’t strong. He’s 3-9 in playoff series as a manager with four different teams, taking the 2002 Giants to the World Series (lost to the Angels). The Astros, who won a World Series in 2017 during a season in which an MLB investigation revealed they used technology to steal signs, came eight outs shy of winning another one last year. The Astros’ window of real contention is likely to close soon. There’s a sense of urgency to win another title with the core players in place, and that’s a sentiment Baker will share as well. A World Series title as a manager would punch his ticket to Cooperstown.