Before the final game of the Division Series between the Reds and Giants, I had written that it could be Dusty Baker's last game as a manager. With his contract ending with the Reds and the club non-committal on an extension, it was possible the Reds would look elsewhere, especially if they failed again to reach the NLCS.
The Reds did lose but announced on Monday that Baker signed a two-year extension.
I think it's the right move. Baker has managed the Reds the past five seasons, helping mold them from a team that won 74 games his first season to a team that won 97 games in 2012 and won the NL Central for the second time in three seasons. Along the way, many young players developed into big league regulars under Baker: Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Zack Cozart, Ryan Hanigan, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Aroldis Chapman, to name the best ones. Before the series against the Giants, Baker referred to the Reds as "my team," and it's easy to see why he would say that.
Baker will always be open to second-guessing from fans and analysts, and his bizarre hit-and-run play (or run-and-hit) with Hanigan at bat and Bruce on second base in Game 5 that helped kill one of the Reds' late-inning rallies was only the latest move to question. On the other hand, he did a terrific job all season handling his rotation and bullpen, and while it took him a while to figure out the lineup, he eventually realized Brandon Phillips was his only reasonable option in the leadoff spot.
If you ask me, the onus for 2013 is on general manager Walt Jocketty to construct a more balanced lineup. Ryan Ludwick is likely to decline his $5 million mutual option to become a free agent. He'll be a tough call for the Reds after slugging .531; and that wasn't just a Great American Ballpark creation, as Ludwick slugged .505 on the road. On the other hand, it was his best season since 2008 and he'll be 34 years old. More importantly, the Reds need to find a left-handed-hitting outfielder, preferably one who can play center field, either to take the job from Drew Stubbs or at least provide a reasonable platoon partner. Prospect Billy Hamilton, who is moving to center field from shortstop, may eventually fill that role, but he needs at least one more season in the minors, so maybe a short-term guy like Shane Victorino is an option. Jocketty also needs to find better bench players than Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez and actually give Dusty some options to work with.
The Reds may not have a lot of flexibility on their payroll. They'll surely let Scott Rolen ($8.1 million) go and hand third base to Todd Frazier and pay the $2.5 million to buy out Ryan Madson's option (Madson made $6 million in 2012). But much of that savings will be eaten up by Votto's increase -- from $11.5 million to $19 million. Reds attendance did increase about 1,600 fans per game over 2011 and there is often another bump after a big season, so the Reds may see a little more money coming in through the turnstiles.
In the end, this will still be a team with championship aspirations in 2013. While Baker seems snakebit in the postseason, it seems stability is the right call here. Are there really any recycled managers you'd want to bring in? And hiring a first-year skipper would seem a risky move for this team.