August 3, 2006

Dave & Nate Take On: Bowden on the Brink

In our free time, usually over beers, Nate and Dave like to discuss the intricacies of deals. This whole Soriano business has provided a lot to talk about. It’s been covered extensively by all our friends in the Natosphere. But the catalyst for this particular discussion was a pre-trade deadline article on Armchair GM. Thanks to S.O.L. over at the Gameday Chat for providing the intial link.

First, go read the article: The New Economics of the MLB Trade Market. Go on, we’ll be here when you get back. (The fictional conversation between Bodes and Stan is great). There is a significant point to be made about the changing dynamics of the market. The market for Soriano on July 31 was very different from the one in December. And the offseason market for him will be very different again.

But more importantly, we want to examine the concept of an overall strategy. Is it possible to evaluate the available evidence and think Bowden was playing a strategy?

“Dave Says”: I think Bowden is working a plan here. In December, he knew the ownership was coming, even if he didn’t know who it would be. He also had to know that long term growth was the only strategy that worked for the team. Did he know Soriano would be this hot? No. But I think he knew he would be good trade bait, and thus his worst case after a one year deal is that he ends up with great draft picks at the end of the process. You don’t get that with Wilkerson and Sledge at the end of 2006, so this is a trade up for 2007. When we all looked at the Soriano trade, we looked at the players involved – not what happens when Soriano moves on at the end of the one year deal. That seems to be the much more critical perspective.

Of course, if Soriano sticks around, maybe you can build a team around him. I think this is playing more to the casual fans than an actual realistic end result, but it’s fun to say. Again, you win either way. Lose him and you get picks. Keep him and you can (maybe) build a team around him. Either result is good, and better than keeping Wilkerson or Sledge at the beginning.

“Nate Says”: I’d be much less concerned about the future of this franchise if I thought Bowden was half so smart. If I could believe that he sat in his hotel room in Dallas last winter and said, “Wilkerson for Soriano? Worst case scenario, I walk away with two first round draft picks. Let’s do it!” then you could convince me that this was all part of some master plan keep the most popular player on the team for a few extra months and rebuild the farm system with high draft picks. But I just don’t buy it.

Trader Jim wasn’t looking at Soriano as a long-term building block. He didn’t even know if he’d be the GM for the long term. In Soriano he found the biggest, splashiest deal available, and he made it. If he’d been serious about a vision for the future of the franchise, he would have needed Soriano’s buy-in, and that would mean at least had talking to the guy about a position-switch that Soriano had earlier flatly refused.

“Dave Says”: Nate brings up the point of needing Soriano’s buy in. Do you really? It all depends on your comfort level being an ass, frankly. (And this is apparently something I know a thing or two about). You’re Bowden. You’re thinking about forcing a square peg into a round hole. You can plan for Soriano to be unhappy and not care. You know you can force him onto the Disqualified List. According to my interpretation of the Basic Agreement (which Nate referenced way back in March), you still get your draft picks at the end of the year. Essentially, $10 million for your draft picks, and 2006 be damned.

As we know, it didn’t turn out this way, and what happened was just slightly better. Bowden could essentially be spending $10 million to stockpile draft picks, knowing he’ll be released from Soriano's contract after a year. You also have to admit, this plays to his splash moves personality. If this scenario had happened, he’d be the talk of baseball about how bold he was.

“Nate Says:” Sure, you don’t need Soriano’s cooperation if you trade for him for the sole purpose of collecting the draft picks at the end of the season. But $10 million, two serviceable big-leaguers (Wilkie and Sledge) and an entire baseball season flushed down the tubes is an awfully high price to pay for two draft picks, even first rounders. I can buy that Bowden was prepared to put Alfonso on the DQ list, eat the money and take the 2007 picks. And I agree, doing so would certainly have made him the talk of baseball, but it’s a terrible strategy.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that Soriano doesn’t outright boycott, but he gives considerably less than 100% in his knew outfield position, swings for the fences in every at-bat, and generally tries to avoid playing himself into an injury before free agency kicks in. If that happens Bowden is saddled with a $10 million clubhouse cancer. He has no chance of getting value in a deadline deal, and Soriano’s negative presence tanks the season as surely as his absence would have done. It’s to Alfonso’s credit that it didn’t turn out that way, and that he’s played up to a level where signing him long-term becomes a defensible move. But none of it smacks of a Bowden “master plan” to maximize Soriano’s value one way or another.

“Dave Says”: Of course, that would have been worst case scenario. It’s realistic to believe that Bowden focused on the positives (he is a spin guy, after all), and he only had cursory thought to this worst case scenario. I think I’m more of an ass than him – just pointing out it’s possible.

I think Bowden actually simply assumed he could make it all work, and had acknowledged the worst case wasn’t likely to happen, and wasn’t so bad for the Nats. (We certainly had plenty of options for outfielders and second basemen). Soriano was going into his free agency. He needed to shine to get his best deal. His agent would have been reminding him of that the entire time, and that being a clubhouse cancer would be bad for business going into those negotiations. Bowden would know this, and would weigh the possibilities of it turning out that way rather than the negative you outline, Nate.

Bowden sees this:
· Worse for Soriano to be benched than would it be for the Nationals in 2006.
· Worse for Soriano to have a bad year than would it be for the Nationals in 2006.
· More upside for 2007 for possession of Soriano than for possession of Wilkie and Sledge, with minimum being the draft picks.
· More upside midseason for Nationals with possession of big bat.

That makes the trade good at the time, as he can play hard ball – without talking to Soriano – since he thinks the scenarios are all more in his favor than Fonzie’s. Now, in December, he foresees two possibilities for 2006.
· (Unlikely) scenario of Nationals in Pennant / Wildcard race
· (Likely) scenario of Nationals not in race, with buyers out there

In either scenario, possession of Soriano is better than Wilkie and Sledge. Discussing the “in the race” scenario yields only sadness, so let’s cut to the trade deadline based on what happened. Bowden is planning his moves. Based on the situation, he’s not in the races, and thus looking to shop what he has. Again, he knows that possession of Soriano nets a minimum of the draft picks. Thus, any trade needs to be better than those draft picks – and that is his price. He sets his price, shoots his mouth off to get the market spinning, and away he goes. No one buys. I don’t believe what happened was a botch of the deal. I think he set his price, which was higher than his view of the value of the draft picks, and the result was that no one was buying. I think there is even evidence of this.

“Nate Says:” This is where we run aground, because no one other than the GMs know what prospects were really on the table for Soriano. Guys like Santana/Aybar or Baker/Kubel don’t blow me away, but there may have been better players available that we just never heard about. Likewise, we won’t know which draft picks, if any, we get back for Soriano until late this year, which is also the earliest we could really start to evaluate the talent available in the 2007 draft. So in terms of evaluating the available deadline deals vs. draft picks our informed speculation dissolves into wild-ass guessing.

Sure Bowden will say that he set his minimum price and no one was willing to meet it, but what else is he going to say? “Gee, looks like I wildly overestimated the market and shot myself in the foot.” Doesn’t sound like our beloved P.T. Bowden, or any other GM who values his job for that matter. But I’m straying a bit far from the point.

The question is not whether Bowden recognized the golden goose once it crapped on him. At issue is whether JimBo approached the Soriano trade with foresight, and made the deal with a reasonable expectation of this outcome. If he did, GREAT, he’s at least a slightly above average general manager. If he didn’t he’s just a guy who caught a break and managed not to screw it up. To me he still looks more like Mr. Lucky than the Amazing Kreskin.

“Dave Says”: You’re right – we’ve hit the point where we’ll never know. Of course he’ll say he had foresight – who wouldn’t? The question is to you think it happened this way? I don’t think he’s the Amazing Kreskin (good pull), but I’m willing to place the guy a little higher than just Mr. Lucky. I think he had several plans in mind – and this was one of them. Not optimal, but not necessarily a bad choice.

Okay folks, now you know where we stand. What say you? Jim Bowden: Misunderestimated Genius or Lucky Pierre?

1 comment:

Chris Needham said...

Interesting Discussion.

One point though that might change your calculus. Despite his slump this year (and it appears they're finally shutting him down), Brad Wilkerson has a pretty good shot of being a Type A Free Agent, but should at least be a Type B next year.

As an A, the Nats would've received two picks for him, too. As a B, the Nats would've got one first rounder without the sandwich pick.


And the other point we need to weigh in with is that with Dana Brown and Mike Rizzo doing the drafting (Brown's last three first-rounders are already in the majors), the first-round pick seems to have a higher value to the Nats than to a team that doesn't know what the hell it's doing in the draft.