New Reds skipper no stranger to spring
Baseball lifer Baker enters 38th training camp ready to go
CINCINNATI -- Reds players, welcome to Camp Dusty.In just over one week's time, new manager Dusty Baker will no longer be just a big name with a big reputation and lots of toothpicks. Baker was hired on Oct. 14, yet the tangible start of his new regime begins with the opening of Reds Spring Training. "He's been there and done that," Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "He knows everything about the game. I heard he's a good guy to play for. I'm looking forward to that." Baker will indeed be bringing a lifetime of baseball experience with him to Sarasota, Fla. The 58-year-old played 19 seasons with four teams and managed 14 more with the Giants and Cubs. Jobless last season, it was the first time in years Baker didn't have a camp to attend or preside over. "I've been doing Spring Training for a long time," said Baker, who was let go by Chicago after posting a 66-96 record in 2006. "This is my 38th Spring Training. As a coach or manager, this is like my 16th ..." Baker's voice trailed momentarily as he started doing some quick arithmetic. "Ten, 15, ooh-wee -- almost 20 years!" he said with a laugh. Although regarded as a "players' manager" by many for having a warm rapport and a good ability to communicate, Baker wasn't brought in just to make friends and influence people. It's all about winning. The Reds haven't been to the playoffs since 1995, or won a World Series since 1990. In the seven seasons since having its last winning record in 2000, Cincinnati has averaged nearly 89 losses per year under four different managers. Baker has shared his philosophy as he's reached out to most of his players during the offseason. When pitchers and catchers arrive, he hopes to put it into action and alter the chemistry of losing of this decade. "I've got an idea of what to do in Spring Training," Baker said. "The main thing we want to do is get everybody together on the same page, get our team together, get everybody together mentally and spiritually. And get them in shape physically for this long marathon that we're about to embark upon." Baker will be spending much of his time learning about the hand he was dealt. He's obviously managed against some of the Reds' veterans, including Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn. But he's had no up-close experience with younger players like Joey Votto, Homer Bailey or top prospect Jay Bruce. One of the bigger questions this spring for Baker and general manager Wayne Krivsky will involve Bruce, who is among four players that will battle for the starting center-field spot. If Baker and Krivsky don't believe Bruce is ready, the fight will likely center between Ryan Freel and Norris Hopper.
"I'm just going to let the young man be himself, let him play," Baker said of Bruce. "I'll try not to put any pressure on him because there's already enough pressure on him. He's in headlines already. I've heard the reports on him are very good. I've never seen him play. I'm excited and anxious to see him play. We'll see when I get there."During Baker's first season with the Giants in 1993, the team won 103 games after winning just 72 the previous season. His 2003 Cubs won 88 games and the National League Central race after they were 67-95 in 2002. The Reds were 72-90 in 2007. What can the 2008 group expect when they get to camp? "A lot of hands-on situations," Baker said. "A lot of conversations, a lot of mini-meetings to try and find out as much as I can in a short period of time about the personnel that I have. What they can expect from me, is me." Baker's track record of bringing quick turnarounds will be tested with the Reds.
After the club was unable to swing a trade for a top-tier pitcher, the rotation still has just two established starters in Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. There will be six less experienced pitchers, including recent free-agent acquisition Jeremy Affeldt, vying for the final three spots.The bullpen had the highest ERA in the National League and a penchant for disintegrating eighth-inning leads last season. The addition of free-agent closer Francisco Cordero is a clear boost for the team in the late innings. "When I signed on, that's one of the things they told me -- we're going to make this team better, improve, add to the depth of it," Baker said. "You're still at the mercy of what's out there and everybody is looking for the same thing. Everybody I've talked to is all looking for pitching. Hopefully, we have enough. If not, we'll go back to the drawing board. [Owner/CEO] Bob Castellini said, 'Hey, we'll get whatever is necessary.'"
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.