December 10, 2005

He's All Ours

The Boston Herald is reporting that the Red Sox have settled on a co-General Manager arrangement for the 2006 season, and Jim Bowden won't be involved. So JimBo is officially all ours, at least until his current contract expires in April. The outside chance that Beantown would swoop in and rescue us from our long National nightmare sustained many a fan through the offseason, but cold reality has settled in over D.C. like a wayward Alberta Clipper.

As the
completed stadium lease agreement, its hour come round at last, slouches toward the Wilson Building to be born, it is possible that Bud Selig will name an owner for our team before the newest Nats fans reach voting age. But even if that rosy scenario plays itself out, Trader Jim will still be making all the personnel decisions this offseason. With that in mind, I've decided to make an attempt to understand The Man Who Will Be GM.

Any honest attempt to walk a mile in Jim Bowden's shoes would treat his career extensively. It would note his
unheralded beginnings with the Pittsburgh Pirates, chronicle his meteoric rise through the ranks of Marge Schott's thoroughly dysfunctional Cincinnati Reds, and humbly observe the fall from grace that swept him out of baseball entirely a decade later. A truly intrepid investigator would plumb Bowden's early years for clues to the GM he would one day become. That kind of labor-intensive quasi-cyberstalking is best left to other, more qualified bloggers.

Instead, I've opted to begin my review in 2005, Year 0 A.B. (After Baseball) of the current Washington dynasty. It's worth noting that this piece takes us back to pre-
Triple Play days when Watson, Dave and I were enthusiastic, uncritical Boswellian Nationals boosters, basking in frigid exhibition baseball. I anticipate that this will be my longest post in the history of Nats Triple Play, so it will be published in two parts. The first post will address Jim Bowden's 2005 preseason acquisitions.

Nationals Farm Authority
compiled and evaluated every personnel move made in the brief history of the Nats farm system. I will for the most part defer to that excellent analysis. Limiting myself mainly to decisions that directly impacted the big league club, my goal is to identify patterns and trends illustrative of Jim Bowden's philosophy and its impact on the franchise.

The Nationals franchise that Jim Bowden joined in late 2004 was a team with a recent history of turmoil. Repeated threatened with contraction, shuffled between two "home" stadiums hundreds of miles apart, and subjected to years-long (mis)management by MLB, relocation to Washington should have provided some welcome stability. But in many respects the team was still adrift. It had no owner, its home stadium needed a complete retrofit and relations between MLB and the city government turned acrimonious even before the relocation agreement was finalized. In this atmosphere Bowden was tasked with rehabilitating a once-proud franchise and winning over a skeptical, twice-burned fanbase. And doing it all on an interim basis, with no job security and no one to lay out a long-term plan for the organization.

Nevertheless, Bowden hit the ground running in D.C., signing big name free agents
Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman to lucrative multi-year deals. Both signings addressed team needs. 2004 SS Orlando Cabrera left in a mid-season trade to Boston and 2004 3B Tony Batista found employment in Japan, leaving questionable in-house replacements like Macier Izturis and Jamey Carroll behind them. At the time both contracts were criticized for their size and length, but it's fair to wonder if Bowden had to overpay to attract established stars to an unstable franchise. Another, less defensible feature of the signings was their timing, which required the Nationals to surrender draft picks for both players. Castilla and Guzman were certainly recognizable to casual baseball fans, and could be sold as improvements just by virtue of not being associated with the 2004 Montreal team that went 67-95.

In the 2004 Rule 5 Draft Bowden and the Nationals selected
Tony Blanco from the Cincinnati Reds. This wasthe first significant manifestation of Bowden's fascination with players from his previous organization, though it was not an unreasonable move for a team with a thin farm system and no expectation of competing in 2005.

Bowden's other preseason blockbuster was the trade that sent
Juan Rivera and Macier Izturis to the Angels in exchange for mercurial outfielder Jose Guillen. Guillen was another established player with credentials, having hit 27 HRs and driven in 104 runs the previous season in Anaheim. While Izturis was clearly not ready to be an everyday contrbutor in the big leagues, Rivera put up solid if unspectacular numbers for the Expos in 2004. Guillen's 1-year contract with a club option year was much less extravagent, but Bowden again displayed a preference for veterans from outside the organization at the expense of homegrown, if slightly less developed players.

The Nationals pitching staff was decimated by injuries in 2004, but returned to health in the offseason, and when Bowden was unable to entice a top-flight free agent pitcher to Washington he settled for
Esteban Loiaza, who struggled through half a season in Chicago and completely imploded in 10 games with the Yankees. Loiaza brought veteran presence to a relatively inexperienced staff, and his one year deal with a mutual option was reasonable for a pitcher with his experience and potential upside. At the time there was no reason to think that Loiaza couldn't be signed to a more substantial contract following his 2005 "audition".

Tomorrow: Jim Bowden's 2005 Season-in-Review

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