MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Reds' turnaround should make Baker top manager

Spencer: Reds' turnaround should put Baker on top

While youth is served on the field, managers seem to be aging like the finest Napa Cabernet.

Davey Johnson, Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy, the three distinguished finalists for the 2012 National League Manager of the Year Award, have combined for 53 seasons and 4,321 victories as Major League managers. Johnson is 69, Baker 63 and Bochy 57. Average age: 63.

The man who wins the vote of the Baseball Writers' Association of America on Tuesday will be sure to acknowledge the efforts of the other worthy candidates. Nobody understands the increasingly severe demands of the job better than these three gentlemen.

2012 Manager of the Year finalists
American League National League
Bob Melvin, OAK Dusty Baker, CIN
Buck Showalter, BAL Bruce Bochy, SF
Robin Ventura, CWS Davey Johnson, WAS

Before Bochy's growing fan base calls out in righteous indignation over the choice here, it needs to be emphasized that the Manager of the Year award applies only to the regular season.

Bochy, San Francisco's cool, commanding leader, was masterful in October, driving his Giants to a second World Series championship in three years. Bochy's 18th big league season in the hot seat was a wonderful ride, start to finish.

Johnson, guiding Washington's Nationals from 80 wins to 98 and to the top of the NL East, masterfully maneuvered and motivated a youthful club that should be a contender for years to come. The painful NL Division Series Game 5 loss does nothing to diminish his or his club's remarkable season.

As brilliant as Bochy and Johnson were, the NL Manager of the Year from April through September was the man in Cincinnati, Baker.

A three-time Manager of the Year with the Giants (1993, '97, 2000), Baker has been in the top five in the balloting seven times, with runner-up finishes with the 2003 Cubs and 2010 Reds.

In his 19 seasons, winning more games than all but 18 managers in history, Baker never has endured a season quite like 2012, with all the challenges it presented.

The Reds lost their new closer, Ryan Madson, before the season began, due to elbow surgery. Aroldis Chapman, who was being groomed as a starter, took over the ninth-inning role and was dominant.

When Joey Votto, one of the game's most valuable all-around talents, went down with a knee injury in July, Baker responded with his best work, drawing a consistently remarkable effort from his entire roster.

A 32-16 record followed in the wake of Votto's injury, expanding a one-game NL Central lead over the Cardinals to eight. At one point in the middle of summer, the Reds won 22 of 25 games.

Finishing with the second-best record in the Majors at 97-65 -- an increase of 18 wins over 2011 -- the Reds took the first two games in the NL Division Series in San Francisco before dropping three in a row in Cincinnati to Bochy's eventual champions.

Despite that disappointment, Baker saw the season's big picture clearly and agreed to a two-year contract extension.

"There's work left to be done," Baker said. "I didn't want to leave on a note that we still had work to do. It left a real pain in my heart to feel as I did at the end of the season this year."

The unrelenting challenge of keeping his team focused and at the top of its game took a physical toll on the former slugger. He remained in his uniform, in his office chair, an hour after a frustrating 2-1 loss in San Diego on July 2.

"I know I shouldn't take it so hard, so personally," Baker said. "But these are my guys."

The Reds went on to win six in a row and 17 of 19, seizing control of the division.

Diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in September, Baker missed 11 games, handing the reins to bench coach Chris Speier. While hospitalized, he suffered what was described as a minor stroke.

Shedding weight and adopting a healthier diet at his family's urging, Baker returned for the final three regular-season games.

Criticized in the past for preferring older players and not handling pitchers properly, Baker's 2012 pitching staff -- the franchise's youngest (27.1 average age) since 1988 -- was the healthiest in the Majors. Four starters worked at least 200 innings, and not one rotation start was missed during the regular season because of injury.

In the NLDS, the tide turned when the Reds lost 19-game winner Johnny Cueto eight pitches into Game 1. That had a role in the team's demise.

October was unkind to Baker and his team, but from April through September, he managed to lift the Reds to exhilarating heights, even with Votto limited to 374 at-bats and 14 home runs.

"These guys played their hearts out," Baker said. "That's all you can ask for as a manager."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.