For Nationals, Greed Is Very Good

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; E01

Jim Bowden is in heaven. Sitting in the Nationals' dugout before last night's game, he beat the trade drums so loudly that you could hear them from Los Angeles to Chicago and Detroit back to New York. "The fire department is in my office right now hosing down my phone because all it does is burn," Bowden said.

Some men have a destiny. George Washington was meant to win the War of Independence and Albert Einstein to unravel relativity. Bowden was born to hear his boss whisper the words, "Trade 'em all by next Monday."

"We've talked trade with 27 teams today," Bowden said.

But have you talked to any of them more than once?

"Yeah, I would hope so," he said, incredulous.

Well, there are 29 other teams in baseball. What about the other two? How'd you miss them?

"We've got several hours left in the day. We're talking to more teams per hour," he grinned, creating a new statistic.

Of course, Bowden has an advantage in his quest to speak to every other GM in baseball at least once an hour. He doesn't sleep. "The latest trade [message] I got was at 4:10 a.m. And that was from a GM on East Coast time, not West Coast."

Last Friday, when the trade winds were merely Category Four, Bowden said: "I'm averaging 1 1/2 hours of sleep a night. I keep getting calls, text messages. I put that [BlackBerry] on 'vibrate' but I still hear it and jump out of bed. It's [Boston GM Theo Epstein or Yankees GM Brian Cashman]. They're crazy."

Of course, Bowden is perfectly sane. On a planet to be named later.

"I'm going to try to get one good night's sleep before this all comes to a head," he said last week. "It's like a kid pulling all-nighters before exams. Not too many in a row."

As of last night, Bowden had changed his plans. "I'll sleep on August 1st. Maybe all day and all night," he said.

Bowden isn't alone. His scouts and front-office personnel get up at 5 a.m., head for the airport and don't come back until their families put out a missing-person bulletin. "I've gone platinum on two different airlines," assistant GM Bob Boone said.

By next Monday at midnight, when the trade deadline passes, some Nationals will remain. As we speak, players may be devising nefarious ways to remain in Washington. Already, in the last five days, two of the fellows Bowden most dearly wanted to deposit in other cities have become untradeable. Yesterday Jose Guillen had Tommy John surgery and Jose Vidro (hamstring) declared himself unable to play and went on the DL. Guillen is legit. But Vidro looks like a career-long Expo-Nat who's found a comfort zone and isn't budging. Some in the Nats organization, fair or not, took his hamstring's sudden turn for the worse as: Pennant race? No thanks.

Never fear, there are still ambulatory Nationals whom Bowden can disperse to the winds -- for the time being.

The first pitch of last night's game at RFK drilled Alfonso "America's Most Wanted" Soriano above the left elbow. That's exactly the spot you'd pick if you wanted to send a series-opening message to a hot hitter who crowds the plate and had six extra-base hits in his previous two games, several on pitches on the outside corner that he hooked to left field. Not that Matt Morris, a menacing Giants veteran with a stubble beard, would ever do such an old-school thing.

Somewhere, Bowden probably screamed. And a GM in Seattle or St. Louis grabbed his ear in pain. "What's the matter, Jim? You sound so scared you'd think Soriano just got hurt. Ha, ha, ha." The Nats aren't laughing.

For weeks, the team has planned to use these days to get rich quick -- rich in young prospects. The team's public posture, which contains plenty of truth, is that the club will simply answer the door if opportunity knocks. If it doesn't, they'll play out the season with the hand they've got. Then, if Soriano isn't re-signed as a free agent this winter by the Nats, Washington will get a first-round pick and a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds as compensation. "We think number one draft picks are precious. We like draft picks," Bowden said. "That's how the Mets and Braves were built." But Bowden doesn't prefer draft picks to young major leaguers who may be on the cusp of excellence, like the Tigers' Joel Zumaya, who throws 100 mph, or the White Sox' 6-foot-7 Brandon McCarthy, 23, who looked as impressive as any Chicago starter last September.

That's why he's broadcasting to the baseball world that his phone is on fire. In the last week of July, you don't wait for the market to come to you. You make the market. You talk it up, brag it up and make everybody in every town worried that your star, your Soriano, is going to end up playing for their arch rival.

At the moment, five American League teams -- the Tigers, White Sox, Red Sox, Yankees and Twins -- think that, if they can just reach the World Series against the pathetic National League, that they will be world champs. But only three of the five can reach the playoffs, let alone the Series. So each, in its own town, is feeling the heat -- to get a Soriano, Bobby Abreu (Philadelphia) or Carlos Lee (Milwaukee).

As Bowden proved this month when he traded for Reds regulars Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, he prefers to act first and trust his judgment of personnel, rather than wait for the 11th hour and hope that time pressure produces the best offer.

"I'd rather get it done with a week left or two days left, not at the last minute. I'm not a deadline guy," Bowden said. "We have a price we have to get to make a deal."

And if they don't get that price -- for Soriano, Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz or Tony Armas Jr. -- Bowden won't pull the trigger. Soriano is certain to be a Type A free agent who will garner two high draft picks in return. Ortiz and Armas, if they finish the season decently, will probably be Type B free agents, like Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco last season, and so net first- or second-round draft picks for the Nats if they are not re-signed.

"We want pitching, pitching, center field, pitching," said Bowden, whispering center field like a state secret. "But if we can't get the pitching we want, then, when you're building for the long term, you just go for the most talent -- at any position."

Then, like a man on seven urns of coffee and no sleep for weeks, Bowden is off on a jag, reciting a sequence of his trades long ago in Cincinnati. He swapped a proven pitcher (his closer, Jeff Shaw) for Paul Konerko -- supposedly a trade deadline sin. But a couple of years and a couple of trades later, Konerko was traded for people who were dealt for Ken Griffey Jr.

"So, in the end, we traded Jeff Shaw for a Hall of Famer," Bowden said.

His eyes grew wide, his fingers twitched and he was gone -- a man headed back to his office, his phones and his fate.

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