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Washington’s Perpetual Rebuilding Efforts

June 7, 2010

Much has been made of the Washington Nationals surprising start to the season and whether their performance can be maintained at a high enough level to actually reach the playoffs. I, for one, don’t necessarily think that reaching the playoffs is the biggest factor in these discussions but rather the likelihood that this team will finish above .500 for the first time since moving to Washington for the 2005 season is the bigger story. For this Nationals team to achieve such a mark, it would go a long way towards the organization building some credibility since the move to Washington. Let’s face it, the Expos had withered away into baseball oblivion by the time their run in Montreal had come to an end. Ownership stopped making any efforts to improve the franchise. The players stopped trying. Most importantly, the fans stopped coming. This organization needed to move and Washington has thus far seemed like a good fit. Now, they just need to find a way to be competitive.

Building the organization into a respectable state was not going to be an easy task for any General Manager to pull off. This was likely part of the decision to give the GM job to former Reds GM Jim Bowden. Bowden had been the GM in Cincinnati from 1992 until his firing in 2003. The Reds won two division titles during that period (1994 and 1995) but were never able to reach the World Series under Bowden’s tenure. One of his biggest acquisitions with the Reds was the 2000 trade that brought Ken Griffey Jr. to the Reds in exchange for Mike Cameron and other players. Despite his 2003 firing and some inflammatory comments about the MLB Player’s Union, Bowden was still regarded as a quality GM who was continuously accessible to the media, made frequent roster moves, and was unafraid to take a chance on a player with a questionable track record.

Bowden’s tenure in Washington began with a continuation of one of those trends as his first move was to trade two players for right fielder Jose Guillen, who had been putting up solid numbers but always seemed to be characterized as a poor teammate. While Guillen put up solid numbers his first season in Washington (.283/.338/.479, 24 HR, 76 RBI) he would follow that campaign up with a miserable showing in 2006 before injuries cut his season short after just 69 games. He’d join the Seattle Mariners the following season where he’d put up numbers solid enough to earn a 3 year, $30 Million contract from the Kansas City Royals. The two players Bowden gave up in exchange for Guillen – Maicer Izturis and Juan Rivera – are both still contributing to an Angel team that has been in contention every year.

A year later, in December of 2005, Bowden made another big splash when he acquired second baseman Alfonso Soriano from the Texas Rangers in exchange for three players – Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge, and Armando Galarraga. None of the three would contribute much for the Rangers with Wilkerson putting up poor numbers through two seasons before leaving as a free agent, Sledge being traded to San Diego before even putting a Ranger uniform on, and Galarraga only working 8.2 innings over 3 appearances as a September callup before being dealt to Detroit. Soriano would put up impressive numbers in what would turn out to be his lone season with the Nationals. He’d hit .277/.351/.560 with a career high 46 HR, 95 RBI, and 41 stolen bases. It seemed to be no coincidence that Soriano would swing the bat well in what was his final year before free agency as he was hoping for a big payday come that following offseason. Yet, he made it abundantly clear that he had no intentions of resigning with the organization throughout the season. The next winter the left fielder (as the Nationals were the ones to recognize he didn’t have the ability to remain at second base long term) signed a massive contract with the Chicago Cubs. Once again, Bowden’s acquisition left and has seen success (and more dollars) elsewhere.

During the 2006 season, Bowden made a trade with his former organization that he has become long-remembered for. The trade sent five players – pitchers Gary Majewski, Daryl Thompson, and Bill Bray and infielders Royce Clayton and Brendan Harris – to the Reds in exchange for right fielder Austin Kearns, infielder Felipe Lopez, and relief pitcher Ryan Wagner. The trade itself would become noteworthy when thinking about Bowden’s career for two reasons. One, the Reds would end up filing a grievance with the Commissioner’s Office over the trade when Majewski would end up going down with an injury just a few short weeks after the deal. Reds trainers and doctors believed it was a pre-existing condition that had been diagnosed by Washington medical personnel and intentionally not shared with the Reds during talks.

The second reason was because Bowden seemingly went out of his way to acquire some of “his old players” and none of them amounted to anything while in a Nationals uniform. Kearns, who had been originally drafted by Bowden while with the Reds, was expected to solidify right field after Guillen went down with an injury. His numbers progressively declined over his 3+ seasons in Washington, his playing time continued to decrease, and ultimately he left the organization as a free agent not sure if he’d be able to find another job. He has had a somewhat resurgent seasons thus far in Cleveland after signing a minor league contract this past winter. Lopez would hit well the remainder of that 2006 season but he then saw his numbers plummet over the next season and a half before finally being released by the organization in July 2008. He has bounced around a bit since then, having difficulty securing anything longer than a 1-year deal, but has been relatively consistent at the plate and versatile in the field. Finally, there is Wagner, who like Kearns was originally drafted by Bowden. He spent parts of two seasons in Washington in which he put up unimpressive numbers over 40 appearances (46.1 IP, 5.05 ERA, 10.9 H/9). He has been out of baseball since the conclusion of the 2007 season.

Right field continuously seemed to be a point of emphasis throughout Bowden’s tenure as GM of the Nationals. In addition to the aforementioned acquisitions of Guillen and Kearns, he would also make trades to bring aboard a number of other outfielders who at one point or another spent some time in right field: Alex Escobar, Preston Wilson, Marlon Byrd, Nook Logan, Chris Snelling, Ryan Langerhans, Wily Mo Pena, Lastings Milledge, and Elijah Dukes. None of them panned out in Washington and only Byrd has gone on to success elsewhere (Milledge and Langerhans have had limited measures of success after moving on from the Nationals but nothing significant).

The organization found little success in acquiring solid contributors at nearly every position on the diamond during Bowden’s tenure. Perhaps the best move of that time was the first draft selection Bowden made with the team, taking third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in the first round of the 2005 draft. He was also responsible for drafting pitchers Ross Detwiler (2007, 1st round) and Jordan Zimmerman (2007, Supplemental round), as well as first baseman Chris Marrero (2006, 1st round), and catcher Derek Norris (2007, 4th round). Both Detwiler and Zimmerman have battled injuries that have kept them off the mound while Marrero and Norris have slowly been progressing through the minor leagues but currently rank as two of the organization’s top prospects.

With little success over t
he five years since he took over the organization and with yet another scandal on his hands, Bowden finally resigned in March of 2009. At the time he claimed his leaving was the result of him feeling as though he could no longer properly represent the organization in a favorable manner. Yet, being involved in an ongoing investigation into bonus skimming in Latin America and after a recent DUI arrest, it was simply time for Bowden to step aside. His assistant GM, Mike Rizzo, would take over on an interim basis before being handed the job fulltime after the 2009 season.

Rizzo did not inherit an easy task when he was handed the responsibility of making this team into a respectable one. And just a year+ into that process, it is far too early to truly grade his performance. Yet, there have been noticeable improvements during that time, most notably the fact that the players on the team seem to come out to play with the right mindset and attitude. The entire organization seems to have finally matured. Now with some time, patience, and shrewd roster decisions the quest has refocused on being competitive.

Thus far in 2010, the Nationals sit at 27-31. Just 6.5 games out of first place, the team has an actual change at staying in the thick of things in the strong NL East if they can continue the strong start they got off to this season. The Phillies have struggled, the Braves have only recently gotten hot, while the Mets and Marlins have both underperformed. It won’t be easy for the Nationals to make the playoffs but it shouldn’t be completely ruled out either. However, as I started this post with, the real goal this season should be finishing above .500. With a little luck, some strong play, and the continued progression of the young players on the roster that doesn’t sound quite so farfetched to me.

Now, I won’t begin to say that the Nationals are “just a player or two away from contention”. There are some holes that need to be addressed on this team. Zimmerman has been solid at third base and has proven he is the leader of this team. First baseman Adam Dunn and left fielder Josh Willingham have had good starts to the season as well. The team also has some strength at the back end of their bullpen in closer Matt Capps, setup man Tyler Clippard, and rookie Drew Storen. Rookie shortstop Ian Desmond will continue to improve. While Livan Hernandez has pitched better than he ever has and young Luis Atilano has done well, there are needed reinforcements on their way to help the starting rotation as Jason Marquis, Chien Ming Wang, Scott Olsen, Jordan Zimmerman, and Detwiler should all return from injuries sometime over the next month. Oh, and they have Stephen Strasburg set to make his debut Tuesday.

The team could use some help behind the plate due to injuries to Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Maldonado, and Jesus Flores. The second base platoon of Adam Kennedy and Christian Guzman hasn’t really impressed. Center fielder Nyjer Morgan has shown flashes of ability but is far too inconsistent. And there doesn’t seem to be enough patience available to allow Roger Bernadina or Justin Maxwell the time needed to settle into right field.

There have been a number of rumors that Washington will be aggressive at this year’s trading deadline if they are still in contention. Presuming they don’t give up the future I can certainly see a deal or two being completed in an effort to improve the roster. Ultimately the organization needs players to continue improving while they hope for a strong offseason. The MLB Draft on Monday night will help take a step in that right direction, but keep in mind that most of those players will not be ready to contribute right away – in particular the likely first overall pick Bryce Harper, who we’re already hearing might be moved from behind the plate to the outfield upon being drafted.

The Nationals may not be ready to reach the playoffs this year but have started to show signs of improvement as a whole. Finishing above .500 will go a long way towards continuing that organizational growth. And there are pieces to build around, Rizzo just needs some time to continue the process while focusing on the long term and not on immediate results.

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