1) Start At The Top: Dusty Baker, Dan Jennings and the Doctors
The first order of business coming out of the regular season was finding a new manager to replace Matt Williams. The Nationals fired Williams and his entire coaching staff the day after the regular season ended, and finding someone who could replace Williams and bring a better culture to the Nationals’ clubhouse was a top priority for Rizzo and the Nationals.
Not long into the interview process, the team narrowed the managerial search to two names: Dusty Baker and Bud Black. Both men were experienced and brought a great track record and reputation to the table. Both players appeared to be a perfect fit for the ball club. But just when it looked like nothing could go wrong for the Nationals, everything did.
Once it was down to those two candidates, many reports said that the Nationals had come to an agreement with Black. Multiple media outlets reported that the team had chosen Black over Baker and that the deal would soon be announced.
But, as it turned out, the Nationals and Black were never able to come to an agreement on the specific details of his contract. The negotiations fell through, and the Nationals had to turn to Baker after the whole world knew he was their second choice. The whole episode was more puzzling than embarrassing, but it certainly wasn’t how the Nationals wanted their all-important offseason to start.
Despite the circumstances surrounding his hiring, the Nationals found their guy in Baker. When it comes to managing experience, Baker is as good as it gets. He’s taken three separate teams to the postseason and has seen success with many star-studded rosters, making him an appealing choice for the Nationals.
The Nationals have made many key moves this offseason, but make no mistake, none of the moves are as important as adding Baker.
Williams led the Nationals to an NL East title in 2014, but he struggled mightily in 2015. The team needed a new voice, and in Baker, they may have added the piece necessary to bring the team to the next level.
Understanding that higher levels of management deserved part of the blame for the failures of 2015, the Nationals have also reworked the front office around Rizzo. They fired two front office executives early in the offseason, and they brought in former Marlins general manger Dan Jennings as a special assistant to Rizzo. Mixing up the front office dynamic wasn’t something many expected the Nationals to do this offseason, but it’s hard to imagine how the changes can be anything but helpful for a team that absolutely has to improve next season.
In an effort to improve the health and condition of the team, the Nationals also completely overhauled their medical system. Rizzo crafted an impressive lineup last year that was part of the reason many expected the team to do so well, but he was only able to use that lineup twice all season long due to a vast number of injuries to some of the team’s most important players.
"“In an innovative shift, the Nationals are transitioning their medical department to one that utilizes a proactive model, with significant analytic input,” the team wrote in a press release when they announced the new system. “This will allow the Nationals to hone in on predictive factors to thwart potential injurious situations, and increase performance, by maintaining the health and wellness of their players.”"
Injuries were the biggest reason the Nationals failed to live up to expectations in 2016, and anything the team can do to improve in that aspect of the game is huge for the Nationals.
While these administrative moves may not seem that important, they ultimately lay the groundwork for the team’s success or failure in 2016. And while it’s ultimately the players who win or lose on the field, the manager, the front office and even the medical staff play a major role in setting them up for success.
Next: 2) The Offense: Balance, Contact and Speed