The Washington Nationals are trying to gain Major League Baseball's permission to sign General Manager Jim Bowden, who is working under a verbal agreement to remain in his position through April, for the entire 2005 season, sources familiar with the situation said yesterday.
"We are in discussions about that right now," Nationals President Tony Tavares said.
Tavares declined to go into detail about the discussions.
MLB still owns the Nationals, a complicating factor in this situation -- as it is with almost all of the team's business. Tavares, appointed by MLB to his post in 2002, is empowered to make most decisions regarding the team, but baseball officials must sign off on major decisions.
MLB President Robert DuPuy was out of his office and did not respond to requests seeking comment yesterday. Reached yesterday at the team's spring training complex in Viera, Fla., Bowden declined to comment on his status. He has never signed a contract with the team.
Despite the apparent uncertainty surrounding Bowden's position, team officials said they expect him to remain with the club even without a contract. Baseball officials are currently distracted by the sport's steroids scandal as well as with the impending sale of the Nationals.
"Jim's not making a big deal out of it," Tavares said. "He's told me he's not worried about it."
Tavares said what Bowden has done within the team's limited, $50 million budget -- a number dictated by MLB -- is enough to convince him that Bowden should be assured the chance to stay even after the team is sold.
MLB is still sorting through ownership proposals from at least seven interested parties. Baseball also must finalize a compensation package for Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who opposed the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington because he believes it infringes on the Orioles' territory. Most in baseball believe the sales process won't be completed until mid-summer.
A new owner will have the right to replace the entire front office, including Tavares and Bowden.
"Jim has earned, from my perspective, a huge endorsement from me to anybody coming on board here," Tavares said. "There's a litany of reasons why. He's in charge of that operation down there" at spring training in Viera.
Because MLB owns the team, most of its employees earn salaries at the low end of baseball's pay scale. Sources familiar with such a scale said that likely puts Bowden's salary, should he work an entire year, at around $300,000.
In November, baseball officials, led by MLB President Robert DuPuy and Tavares, hired Bowden, the former GM of the Cincinnati Reds, to replace Omar Minaya, who left in September for the same post with the New York Mets. After 10 1/2 years as the Reds' GM, Bowden was fired in July 2003. He almost immediately went to work as an analyst for ESPN, and had a regular gig on ESPN2's morning show, "Cold Pizza." When he was hired by the Nationals, he said he was taking a "leave of absence" from his TV job.
Still, Bowden has run the Nationals as if he would like to stay in his post permanently. He almost immediately started remaking the team, cutting Rocky Biddle, who began the 2004 season as the team's closer, and moving quickly to sign two free agents -- shortstop Cristian Guzman and third baseman Vinny Castilla. Critics thought the contracts for Guzman (four years, $16.8 million) and Castilla (two years, $6.2 million) were too lucrative, but they addressed the team's most significant needs.
Two weeks after those signings, Bowden traded for outfielder Jose Guillen, a power hitter with promise who brings a history of off-field problems. Those three additions overhauled the team's lineup, one of the weakest in baseball last season. In January, Bowden signed right-hander Esteban Loaiza in an attempt to shore up the team's fragile starting rotation.
During spring training, Bowden has intensely evaluated all players, spending an extraordinary amount of time scrutinizing batting practice and eyeing pitchers during bullpen sessions. Though he has kept much of the Nationals' structure intact -- including Manager Frank Robinson, much of the coaching staff, assistant GM Tony Siegle and much of the scouting and development staff -- he has also put his own stamp on the operation.
Bowden hired Bob Boone, Jose Rijo and Barry Larkin as special assistants. All three have ties to Bowden's tenure with the Reds, and have been visible during spring training and will be evaluating targets for the June draft, in which the Nationals have the fourth pick.
"Whether I have this job for a day, a week, a month or a year," Bowden said in an interview earlier in spring training, "I have to have a plan like I'm going to have it for 10 years."