It seems that every Chicago sports columnist has a slightly different opinion about the hiring of Dusty Baker, but in the end it boils down to two. Phil Rogers calls it the “Cubs’ biggest victory in years,” while Jay Mariotti asks, “What have you done, Dusty?”
My view is that, generally, managers don’t make that much of a difference to how well a team does. As a friend of mine said about Baker’s $15 million signing, “What’s his batting average again?” A bad one can definitely cost you wins but a good one won’t win you too many, in spite of all the hype. But this hiring is a symbolic gesture to the franchise and to its fans that the Tribune Co. is committed to winning, or at least committed to looking like they’re committed to winning.
And the truth is that in spite of how awful the Cubs were last year, they have the potential to be a perennial contender for the remainder of this decade. They have a trio of strong, young starting pitchers (not just “arms”) in Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Matt Clement. They have a trio of potentially very good young position players in first baseman Hee Sop Choi, second baseman Bobby Hill and centerfielder Corey Patterson. And, of course, they still have a guy who not only wants to get to the Hall of Fame, but wouldn’t mind winning a pennant or two on his way there in Sammy Sosa.
In this kind of situation you want to bring in a strong personality who can pull things together a little bit, improve the clubhouse atmosphere, nurture young players, coddle veterans, and most importantly not screw it up. The Cubs may not contend for a division crown in two years, but it won’t be because Baker screwed up. As bad as Baylor was as a manager, it wasn’t his fault that Moises Alou and Todd Hundley forgot how to hit or that the bullpen forgot how to pitch.
Baker won’t be a magic bullet. The Cubs have a lot of holes to fill, and I don’t expect this coming year to be anything more than a transition year, though supposedly one of Baker’s assets is his ability to attract guys to come play for him. So he’s not just a manager, but a personnel asset as well. Regardless, the young guys should be given a chance to play, and the Cubs should not trade away the farm if they’re six or eight games out of first in July. It’s not worth it. I’m tired of one-year deals.
The Cubs deserve, and have a chance to be, a team that year in and year out contends for division crowns and wild-card spots.