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Nationals’ sell-off vindication for Dusty Baker

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The Nationals threw in the towel on Tuesday, trading second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Cubs and 1B/OF Matt Adams to the Cardinals. The club also placed outfielder and soon-to-be free agent Bryce Harper on revocable waivers but took him back. The Nats’ sell-off is a vindication for former manager Dusty Baker, let go after the Nationals failed to advance past the NLDS for a second straight year.

Baker had roughly the same team current manager Dave Martinez did. It was arguably worse, considering he never wrote Juan Soto‘s name on the lineup card. The 2018 squad, sans Baker, has been marked by mutiny and underachievement. While failing to reach the NLCS in Baker’s two years was disappointing, he took them to Game 5 in the NLDS both years as well as 95 and 97 regular season wins. Right now, Martinez’s squad has a winning percentage more than 100 points lower than Baker’s last year. They’re on pace to go 80-82, which would be their first sub-.500 season since 2011.

Baker has always had an undeserved bad rap. He was, correctly, blamed for the Cubs’ demise, due somewhat to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior falling apart, ostensibly from overuse. However, after his stint in Chicago, Baker took the lowly Reds from the bottom of the NL Central to the top in two years between 2008-10. Then he took the Nationals, which had won a meager 83 games in 2015 and had made the playoffs just twice since moving from Montreal, to two consecutive NLDS Game 5’s.

Not much changed from 2017 to ’18. Martinez inherited Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Michael Taylor, Bryce Harper, Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy, Matt Wieters, Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Shawn Kelley, and Koda Glover, among others. But for one reason or another — injuries, admittedly, make up one reason — almost all of these players are having worse years under Martinez than under Baker. Describing the 2018 team to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, Baker said, “They’re together, but they’re separate.”

Is it strictly Baker that would make the difference? No, of course not. But the Nationals organization seems unwilling or unable to address issues that may extend into the front office. The Nats seem happy to go through a new manager every couple of years and hope that fixes all that ails them. Since Frank Robinson’s five years at the helm from 2002-06, Manny Acta managed two and a half years, Jim Riggleman one and a half, Davey Johnson two, Matt Williams two, Baker two. Maybe the problem was never the manager. Perhaps the problem is the Lerner family and Mike Rizzo.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.