More Questions, Less Answers In Cincy

By Paul Daugherty
Updated: July 4, 2010

CINCINNATI — Dusty Baker wants a contract extension. He might be surprised he hasn’t gotten one already.

In the last year of a three-year deal that pays him about $3.5 million a year, Baker presides over an overachieving team that leads its division.

The first 81 games showed us the Reds will be viable for the next 81, barring major injuries. Do you credit Baker for that? How much? What’s a manager worth? If you criticized Baker for his first two years here, don’t you have to praise him now?

It’s an endless debate, one that will take on greater urgency as the season progresses. If the team continues to win, Baker’s extension is inevitable and deserved, and could come before the year is over. The issue is, how much and how long.

You can be sure that’s a huge debate now, in the corner offices at GABP.

Should a team with a $76 million payroll have a $3.5 million manager?

Baker is among the top six or seven highest paid managers in baseball. He makes more than the Manuels, Charlie in Philly and Jerry with the Mets. He makes more than Ron Gardenhire in Minnesota and more than Joe Girardi in the Bronx. He’s in about the same tall cotton as Lou Piniella.

If Tony La Russa and Terry Francona are Indian Hill and Terrace Park — each making about $4 million — Baker is Hyde Park, roughly $500,000 behind. Two camps of thought dominate the conversation when it comes to a manager’s importance. Each has a prominent seat at the conference table at Great American: (1) A manager needs to be a tactician. With so much data so easily available, there is no excuse for him not to play the best percentages with every decision he makes. Old-school Dusty is not a great strategist. La Russa bats his pitcher eighth and turns every game into Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky. The St. Louis manager doesn’t stop thinking baseball.

Dusty Baker, a man of varied interests, does. How important is that?

Would La Russa have allowed Travis Wood to walk the first two Cubs hitters in the eighth inning Thursday? Would he have sent up Mike Leake to hit in the sixth last week, against Philadelphia? Is this nit-picking, small-picture stuff? Or will it matter in a tight September?

Baker suffers from working in an age when over-analysis is the norm. Every fan with a laptop can go to baseball-reference.com and break off a legitimate second guess. That doesn’t help Baker, who sometimes manages by feel.

(2) Baker’s patience and pro-player attitude has allowed his team to relax. The Reds come to the ballpark every day happy and ready to work.

That’s the tone. The manager gets some credit for that. Baker didn’t have the players to win here his first two years. Now he does, and the team is playing very well.

Contrast that with Piniella, who has several stars, or at least players whose baseball cards say they should be stars. They’re paid that way: The Cubs’ payroll is nearly double Cincinnati’s. Piniella’s Cubs are a bloated, listless mess.

What’s the tone at Wrigley these days?

Some teams are fat with players who care about hitting home runs and anticipating their arbitration hearings. In recent years, the Reds have been one of those teams. Now, under Dusty, the Reds’ roster is loaded with players who are happy to take a 10-pitch at-bat, even if it results in an out.

Does Baker get some love for that?

On the other hand. . .

The best clubhouses manage themselves. Young players take their cues from older players. Are you offering extensions and raises?

Toss them at the folks who brought in Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera.

Rolen is here because Walt Jocketty and Bob Castellini wanted him here.

Maybe The Big Man should give himself a bonus.

Corporations can lard themselves with layers of management. They’re never any better than those who labor beneath them. A well-run baseball team is no different than a well-run Fortune 500 company. If your employees are happy and believe they are treated fairly, they will work harder and smarter.

Baker’s boys have worked harder and smarter in 2010.

He has the horses. He’s letting them run. How much is that worth? The guess here is that the Reds will try to keep Baker for what he’s making now, maybe less.

They aren’t universally happy with paying him as much as they do. They aren’t entirely convinced another manager could not have done the same job this year, at a greatly reduced rate.

How the manager will deal with that is anybody’s guess. How do you extend a successful manager’s contract and offer him less than he’s making now?

We could be about to find out. Meantime, enjoy the show.

It has been very good, no matter who’s getting the praise.