Let me make something clear from the jump: I like Dusty Baker.
I like the way he jiggles toothpicks between his teeth, popping them around anxiously as he stares at his lineup card and contemplates a double switch. I like the way he tells it like it is to reporters, avoiding the tired manager clichés and speaking from his gut.
And, I like the way that when the game is on the line, he becomes as big a fan as the rest of us, slapping his hands together after a crucial strikeout and pumping his brittle, 62-year-old fists in the air when his closer slams the door.
More importantly, however, Dusty has brought success to Cincinnati, something very few managers in recent memory have done.
Since joining the Reds in 2008, Baker made modest strides his first two seasons, only to guide his 2010 squad to a National League Central title, the Reds’ first playoff berth in 15 years.
While many will point to the emergence of young pitching talent and the MVP season of Joey Votto, the Reds' triumphant 2010 campaign can just as easily be traced back to Baker.
When he isn’t fly fishing in Colorado, spinning yarns from his playing days or traveling to Cuba to sample jazz records, Baker has been the consummate player’s coach. He stands behind his men at every juncture, and (at least in 2010) puts them in the best position to succeed.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that when Baker signed on, his ghosts from Chicago worried me. Known to be partial to crotchety veterans, wary of youth and a Grim Reaper to young power arms (see: Wood, Kerry and Prior, Mark), Baker’s arrival in Cincinnati was met roundly by fan trepidation.
After all, Reds followers had endured years of teams led by the likes of the Rich Aurilias and Jason Larues of the world. In a transition filled with anticipation and hope, the last thing fans wanted was to witness a guy continuously ignore young talent while sending top pitching prospects Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto to the operating table.
To be fair, though, Baker set out immediately to disprove his national reputation. While starting the 2008 season with Scott Hatteberg at first, Baker soon embraced the promise of a young Votto, steadily upping his playing time until he unseated the incumbent first basemen for good.
Baker also deserves a portion of the credit for turning Edinson Volquez, fresh off the plane from the Texas Rangers and saddled with mixed scouting reports, into a 17-game winner and an All-Star his first year with the Reds.
More recently, Baker allowed himself the foresight to let rookie Mike Leake crack the Reds’ 2010 Opening Day roster. Leake quickly became the stalwart of the Reds rotation in the first half.
Yes, in Baker’s three seasons in Cincy, he’s come a long way, not only in cleansing his national reputation, but also in earning the trust and admiration of many Reds fans. However, when Baker named Edinson Volquez his Opening Day starter on Tuesday (barely a week into Spring Training), he took a step backward.
Some will support Baker’s announcement, citing Volquez’ 2008 totals and arguing he is the only Reds starter with true “number one stuff." Others will blast Baker for the move, as he surely has two more deserving starters in Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto.
A third contingent will look at Baker’s decision and wonder if it wasn’t just a classic case of Baker over-analyzing his way into another stumble-bum move.
Now, before we consider Baker’s reasons for basically designating Volquez the ace, let’s take stock of the options he had to choose from. In one corner, we have Arroyo, a five-year Red and fresh off of two straight seasons of at least 15 wins (17 in 2010) and a sub-4.00 ERA.
In the opposite corner we have Cueto, still only 24, but who has increased his win total in each of the past three years and has been as reliable a starter as the Reds have had in that time frame. Both Arroyo and Cueto were recently awarded lucrative contract extensions, and both are assured spots in Cincinnati’s 2011 rotation.
Then we have Volquez. Proud owner of eight total wins over the last two years, Volquez spent the 2010 season adding insult to injury, as he was suspended for testing positive for an illegal drug. Volquez’ insistence that what the tests showed were female fertility drugs did little to mitigate his case in the eyes of MLB officials or Reds fans.
Conveniently, Volquez was able to serve out his suspension as he rehabbed from “Tommy John” ligament surgery, but between his injury-marred 2009 and his rehab/lady-pill-stunted 2010, Volquez saw very little of the field.
Yet, despite some very obvious signs pointing in several equally-logical directions, Baker chose the road less expected. When naming Volquez as his 'numero uno' to start the season, Baker attempted to explain his rationale.
First, he contended, Arroyo didn’t necessarily want the start. Okay. I suppose I can swallow that. Arroyo has long been known to despise pitching in day games (Opening Day’s first pitch is at 2:10 p.m.), preferring instead to spend his afternoons wearing sunglasses and nursing hangovers.
Next, Baker said he wanted to split up his hard-throwers with a soft-tosser. Again, I am okay with Arroyo going in the two-spot if he prefers it, but that doesn't mean I'm buying the whole “rotating the rotation” argument.
Last time I checked, the Phillies weren’t worried about pitching the hard-throwing Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee back-to-back, and I'm pretty sure the Giants are fine with their one-two studly punch of Lincecum and Cain.
Yet, let’s say for the sake of argument that Dusty’s second reason held up: It’s still not cause to send Volquez out before Cueto.
Who should start Opening Day for the Reds?
Baker went on to address Cueto in his next point. When asked why Cueto wasn’t getting the nod, Baker drew on his extensive psychological acumen, explaining that Cueto had just signed a three-year contract, and was "already under enough pressure" to perform.
Now, I may not be the MOST astute observer in the world, but to me that statement begs a couple of rudimentary questions. First, what exactly are "we" paying Cueto for, if not to step his game up a level and perform well under increased scrutiny?
If, instead of signing Cueto, the Reds went out and purchased some other young fire-baller in his prime, wouldn’t the new guy in town be expected to perform at a level commensurate with his paycheck? Why should Cueto be any different?
Also, if we want to talk about pressure, we shouldn’t forget the weight Volquez carries on his shoulders after being traded for all-world star Josh Hamilton, performing prodigiously in his first Reds season, only to crash suddenly back to Earth.
Volquez has been viewed as the Reds ace-in-waiting since the Hamilton trade (unless you count Homer Bailey—but let’s face it, who really counts Homer Bailey anymore?) and since the end of the ’08 season, has done nothing but disappoint. If anything, it seems that Volquez is the one that should be babied back to prominence, not Cueto.
Finally, Baker cited Volquez’ mental toughness, saying that even in a situation as daunting as Opening Day, nothing seems to rattle his pitcher.
I beg to differ.
One needn’t mine through the annals of baseball history to find the last time Volquez wilted under pressure. In fact, in Volquez’ most recent start (the 2010 NLDS opener at the Phillies...arguably the biggest game of his career), the National Anthem barely ended before Philly had posted four earned runs on the Reds’ overmatched starter.
Volquez labored through 1.2 innings, looking so confused that no one would be surprised if he STILL was having trouble finding the strike zone. It was that bad.
Clearly Baker isn’t remembering that game. Or, if he’s anything like the rest of Reds nation, maybe he’s still trying to do his best to forget. Either way, to (essentially) imply that Volquez is the Reds' biggest gamer is just absurd.
It doesn't take a sabermatrician to see that Volquez folded like a moldy card table in that loss to the Phillies; a victim of hype, nerves and quite possibly a still-weakened throwing arm.
As we sit here today, it is entirely possible that many of Baker’s reasons for crowning Volquez his ace are legit. After all, it’s been widely reported that Bronson Arroyo prefers the middle of the rotation, and who knows, maybe sandwiching Arroyo’s looping curve between the heater/slider combo of Cueto and Volquez will be enough to puzzle the Brewers on Opening Weekend.
However, there’s nothing to suggest that Cueto shouldn’t get the start over Volquez. As much as Cueto earned his three-year deal, he’s earned the respect owed to a future potential ace. And, more importantly, as much as Cueto has been the picture of progress in his three years in the majors, Volquez remains a mystery.
Baker’s last point was that Volquez was honored by the opportunity; that he would relish the chance to prove himself. So, are we supposed to believe that, if asked to cap his big offseason with an Opening Day start and the chance to be the club’s ace, Cueto would say no?
Come on, Dusty, you’re better than that.