How close did the Washington Nationals come to getting Sammy Sosa from the Chicago Cubs, before the Baltimore Orioles ultimately did? Close enough that the Cubs made it clear they would have sent him to Washington for less money than the Orioles ultimately paid. Close enough that the Nationals concluded they could have fit Sosa into their 2005 payroll budget. Close enough that Sosa told close friends he had a choice between Washington and Baltimore.
"He was pretty close" to coming to Washington, said Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen, a close friend who has spoken to Sosa frequently in recent weeks. "It just came down to his decision, Baltimore or Washington. We almost got him, but he just decided to go over there."
"Giving up young players for what could be a one-year phenomenon doesn't make a lot of sense to us," Nationals President Tony Tavares said of his team's interest in a trade for Sammy Sosa.
(Gail Burton -- AP)
Nationals officials, however, gently dispute Guillen's secondhand version of events. According to team president Tony Tavares and General Manager Jim Bowden, they could have had Sosa, but balked at the asking price -- in terms of talent, not money -- well before Sosa would have needed to be consulted about waiving his lucrative trade clause.
"I said all along, if [the Cubs] will pay his entire salary and we can make a deal without giving up our core young players, we'd like to have Sammy Sosa," Bowden said. "That's what we tried to do. We were never able to make a deal."
Tavares went a step further, saying the Nationals never even made a counteroffer after the Cubs' initial trade proposal, characterizing the subsequent discussions as "conceptual."
Ultimately, the Orioles got the deal done by sending second baseman-outfielder Jerry Hairston and two mid-level prospects to the Cubs for Sosa, the 36-year-old slugger whose icon status in Chicago had steadily worn away the past few seasons amid declining production and increasingly unseemly behavior.
In dumping Sosa, the Cubs agreed to pay about $15.5 million of the remaining money owed to him, while the Orioles will be on the hook for about $9.5 million -- $5 million toward Sosa's 2005 salary, plus a $4.5 million buyout of the option year on his contract for 2006. In order to facilitate the trade, Sosa agreed to waive the clause that would have guaranteed the $18 million 2006 option.
Sosa will be eligible for free agency following the 2005 season, although the Orioles are expected to attempt to sign him to a contract extension in the coming weeks.
A source familiar with the trade discussions between the Cubs and Nationals -- which began at December's winter meetings -- said the Cubs offered to eat more of Sosa's contract, in order to allow the Nationals to squeeze him into their MLB-mandated payroll, if the Nationals would part with better talent than the Orioles' gave up.
The proposed deal, Tavares said, "wouldn't have caused a problem" for the team, in terms of finances.
Although it is unclear what players the Cubs wanted from the Nationals, it is believed the Cubs -- who need outfield help, after losing Sosa and free agent Moises Alou in the same offseason -- asked for Nationals outfielders Brad Wilkerson and/or Terrmel Sledge. Bowden, who stresses he is always willing to listen to offers, nonetheless repeated yesterday that Wilkerson, catcher Brian Schneider and first baseman Nick Johnson "are our core, the guys we want to build around."
"We are focused on making this team good now and getting better and better and better," Tavares said. "So giving up young players for what could be a one-year phenomenon doesn't make a lot of sense to us."
There has been speculation, perhaps inevitably, that the Orioles' trumping of the Nationals with the Sosa deal was somehow tied to the bizarre three-way relationship that ties the teams and MLB together. Baseball owns the Nationals franchise -- which it hopes to sell in the coming months -- and is simultaneously negotiating with Orioles owner Peter Angelos on a compensation package for moving the Nationals into territory Angelos considers to be his.
Under this conspiracy theory, MLB and Commissioner Bud Selig supposedly steered Sosa to the Orioles as a way to placate Angelos -- something officials from the Orioles, Nationals and the commissioner's office have denied categorically.
"It's total bull," Tavares said. "I don't know where [people are] coming up with this."
Bob DuPuy, baseball's president and chief operating officer, called it "palpable nonsense." DuPuy said he was informed at one point by Tavares that "the Nationals weren't interested in the Sosa deal."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga and the Associated Press contributed to this report.