A team that gets 90 wins typically goes down in the record-books as a success, especially a team that reached some form of postseason play three out of four years.
But now that the Cincinnati Reds have returned to the right side of success, fans in the Queen City are left wanting more.
The boiling point for the Tri-State has come with the failure to get out of the first round of the postseason in the past two decades, which is exacerbated by their professional football counterpart also failing to achieve a postseason advancement.
So yet again, with a 6-2 loss to the Pirates in the Wild Card game, the blame goes straight to the man at the stairs in the dugout with a toothpick in his mouth: Dusty Baker.
Can he truly be the problem? Is he the glass ceiling on the Reds success in the postseason? Is it really all Dusty Baker's fault?
In short, no, it's not Dusty Baker's fault... entirely.
To fully analyze what the problems were, let's break down what happened to the Reds not just against the Pirates, not just down the stretch, but this entire season, and why it was or was not Dusty's fault.
Problem #1: The Reds' health
Why It's not Dusty's Fault: The 2013 team was unfortunately doomed from Opening Day, and a stark contrast to the team of 2012 that had no starting pitcher miss a start all season-long, and other than Joey Votto had no major injuries to speak of on the offensive side.
With reliever Nick Masset already on the DL in Spring Training, Sean Marshall experiencing issues throughout March and Ryan Hanigan not himself due to several aches and injuries, there were quite literally growing pains this year. Then Ryan Ludwick's slide into third base knocked him out for four months, and the Reds offensive plans were turned upside down.
The issues continued with little things here and there that sat Phillips for a day or two at a time, Jonathan Broxton making trips on and off the DL, Logan Ondrusek not the same pitcher as he battled ailments, and Cueto returning to the DL with the same injury that knocked him out in the 2012 postseason, not to mention coming back too early and going back on the DL multiple times.
When Ludwick came back, he wasn't full strength, and with the Reds bullpen in disarray, some unfamiliar faces had to step into new roles to get the gears rolling, leaving some unpredictability out of a formerly extremely dependable bullpen. Even breakout pitcher Tony Cingrani ended up with an injury that kept him out of action late in September and in the Wild Card game. And let's be honest, Votto still isn't the same hitter he was before his leg injury in 2012: He doesn't have the same bat speed, power or willingness to chase to get timely hits.
Why it's Dusty's fault: One could argue he, along with others in the organization, tried to rush players back, specifically Cueto, Hanigan and Broxton, who all had multiple stints on the DL this year.
Why it's Dusty's fault: In the Wild Card elimination game, he started Johnny Cueto, just his third start since coming off his most recent stint on the DL.
Why it's not Dusty's fault: The options out of the starting lineup were limited, including an injured Mat Latos (bone spur in his elbow), a roughed up Bronson Arroyo (5 home runs given up to the Pirates over the weekend) who would have been on short rest, and a recently unpredictable Mike Leake.
Why it's Dusty's fault: Once Cueto was beat up, Baker went with Sean Marshall, another pitcher fresh off the disabled list, with less velocity and not the sharp control of his breaking ball he once had. Marshall didn't get a single out in just his fifth appearance since coming off the DL. Marshall perpetuated an already demoralizing inning by walking two and giving up another run, causing Baker to come back out and relieve him in favor of JJ Hoover.
Why it's Dusty's fault: Homer Bailey threw a no-hitter late in the season in 2012 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and had three days rest. Bailey could have potentially gotten the Reds deeper into the game, and at least would have been in better physical and mental shape than Cueto.
Why it's not Dusty's fault: Bailey was terrible against the Bucs this year, going 0-3 in four games started, with a 4.30 ERA. Dusty had few other options.
Problem #2: Inconsistent offense
Why it's not Dusty's fault: What the Reds gained in their lead-off spot with the acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo, they lost in productivity from other key players.
The aforementioned injured Hanigan was down .076 points in his batting average, and down .059 points in on-base percentage. Were it not for his prowess behind the plate as a game-caller and defensive achiever, Devin Mesoraco would be the exclusive catcher for the Reds this year.
Why it's Dusty's fault: Knowing that the offense needed a spark, and seeing Mesoraco develop as a catcher this year, Hanigan should have taken a backseat in the win-or-go-home Wild Card game. Hanigan was 0-3 and saw the second fewest amount of pitches of any Reds batter throughout the game with just 11.
Why it's not Dusty's fault: There were stretches of the season, specifically in September and June, where the offense just went to sleep. Timely hits weren't coming for any of the Reds, despite a red-hot May and August.
Why it's not Dusty's fault: The team's upper management made a decision not to make a move for any high-powered offensive bat as the trade deadline came and went, opting rather to wait for players coming off the DL and treating them as "similar" to acquisitions. Where this doesn't add up is that when players come off a break due to an injury, they're almost never 100 percent, and such was the case for almost every Cincinnati Red who spent a stint off the roster for some time this season, causing performance below expectations.
Why it's Dusty's fault: You could argue Dusty wasn't aggressive enough to get the offense fired up throughout the season. There were very few hit and runs, very few stolen base attempts and very few unorthodox calls to stir things up. It's the grit of teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians that can earn wins, rather than get them strictly on talent.
Why it's not Dusty's fault: Joey Votto returned to human status this year as an RBI and average guy, but instead passed the pressure to drive in runs off to whomever was behind him with his increased OBP. That job typically fell to Brandon Phillips, who had a blazing April and May, but mostly sputtered out the rest of the year, ending with a measly .261 average and only recording 21 RBI in the final two months of the year. Same goes for the other man responsible for the RBIs, Jay Bruce. Bruce had a breakout year, but most of it came in May, June and July. The rest of his year was mediocre at best. The offense getting hot and cold was just a result of bad timing as the season wound down, rather than anything Dusty had control over.
Why it's Dusty's fault: Votto's year had more resemblance to that of a No. 2 hitter in the lineup, rather than a No. 3, but with Dusty's steadfast mindset that he broke but a few times this year of never having two lefties go back-to-back in the lineup, we'll never know what that might have looked like. Same goes with Bruce on the other end of the lineup. When the team's offense was noticeably dormant in September, that would seem to be the trigger to try some new things, especially as the Reds were supposedly gearing up for a postseason run, when in reality they hobbled into the Wild Card game to begin with.
Why it's not Dusty's fault: The Reds gambled by acquiring only a mediocre backup at third base in Jack Hannahan, which essentially entrusted the majority of the duties to the yet unproven Todd Frazier. Frazier had a decent year when he filled in for Scott Rolen in 2012, putting up a .273 average, but it was just that: One year. Frazier definitely regressed with a .234 batting average this year, and has a lot of work to do on putting the ball in play when it isn't a home run or pop out. Even so, he was more clutch than most Reds hitters, matching Votto's RBI numbers at 73 on the year, despite seeing far fewer chances than Votto did for RBI throughout the course of the season.
Why it's Dusty's fault: Baker never settled on a left-fielder in Ludwick's absence. Just when it seemed like Derrick Robinson was starting to get in a rhythm, he'd start Xavier Paul for a few games instead. Just when it seemed that Paul was getting the hang of it, he'd put in Chris Heisey. When Heisey was playing poorly, Baker didn't give him enough time off to regroup, perpetuating the poor performance.
Problem #3: Lack of a spark
Why it's Dusty's fault: There is no true vocal and veteran leader on this squad, with the exception of Ryan Ludwick, who was out a good portion of the year rehabbing his shoulder, not to mention when he did come back he had to focus on himself to be a productive member of the team. Dusty's managing style is not that of an outspoken leader, but rather a man of the players. It's that very style that can make those Vince Lombardi speeches and in the moment encouragements tough to ride out into the sunset on when you see your leader as "just one of the guys."
Why it's not Dusty's fault: The above is a subjective observation at best, and a team that has been together like this one has been for as long as they have been ought to have their own cohesive motivation. Each member should be a self-starter to play for their fellow teammate, who they've played alongside for three and four years now. It's hard to find that cohesiveness for that long in baseball, and if the members of the team can't capitalize on it, it's hard for a manager to force that.
Why it's not Dusty's fault: At the end of the day, Baker makes the decisions he feels are the best for the situations the team is in, with the information he has, and it's up to the players to perform. The differences this year were hampering injuries causing inconsistencies, a few more walks in place of a few less home runs, but a huge lacking in timely hits by the guys up at the plate; not Dusty. The MLB doesn't track men left on base as an official stat, but if they did, you can be sure the Reds would be among the leaders in that category. Just one fewer runner stranded on second per series, per week, per month puts the Reds in a much better position come this October. One could argue the difference in Tuesday night's game was just a few feet when Todd Frazier hit a foul ball at home run distance in the fourth inning that was just shy of the pole while there were two men on base. Heck, let's blame the guy that invented the foul line, and hold him accountable for how straight he decided to make it.
That's 10 reasons it's not Dusty's fault and 10 reasons it is Dusty's fault. So we've reached an impasse.
Here's food for thought on the Dusty Baker debate, who the Associated Press reported Friday will no longer manage the Cincinnati Reds: Players that play for really, really good managers, who are motivated to play day-in and day-out and get that spark from the man in the office behind the dugout, mention it a lot. They talk about it in press conferences, in candid locker room interviews, on Twitter and everywhere in between. Guys that play for Terry Francona (Cleveland Indians), Buck Showalter (Baltimore Orioles), Joe Maddon (Tampa Bay Rays) Bruce Bochy (San Francisco Giants) and John Farrell (Boston Red Sox) all make it publicly known that they are proud to represent the men at the end of the dugout, whether they have a toothpick in their mouth or not.
Having a good manager to play for doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a good team. Only the Indians, Rays and Red Sox are in the postseason this year of the above, and people like Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa were tough to play for but successful year-in and year-out, but it begs the question: Did you ever hear Dusty Baker's name in the press conferences here in Cincinnati?
In reality, 90 wins and a trip to the postseason is a success. Three postseason trips in four years is a success. Dusty must be doing something right, right?
More importantly, there are guys who are going to be on this team for the next five years, and they're only going to learn, get better and get more motivated with every passing game.
It's success to build on and it's something to look forward to other than the Opening Day Parade next April.
What's your take on Dusty Baker as a manager? Leave a comment in the section below.
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