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Nationals Could Play Small Role in Big Deal

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Dec. 4 -- The Hollywood Jim persona, long a fixture of baseball's winter meetings, stayed behind in Washington this year, along with the infamous leather pants and the suitcase full of cash necessary to be a real player in this winter's turbocharged talent market. The Washington Nationals, and their combustible general manager, Jim Bowden, were to have been mere onlookers this week at the Walt Disney World Dolphin resort, priced out of the market and reduced to bottom-feeding far from the spotlight.

Yet, even when Bowden isn't looking to make the big score, it seems the big score still tries to find him.

With the Boston Red Sox attempting to trade disgruntled slugger Manny Ramirez to one of a handful of teams, some of which do not own the necessary pieces to satisfy Boston's demands, one creative solution emerged right out of the Hollywood Jim Bowden playbook, circa 1999.

Here, in the land of Mickey and Goofy, in the midst of a spiraling free agent market that sometimes stretches the imagination, could the lowly Nationals somehow find a place at the center of the most intricate, most explosive chain of personnel moves of this offseason?

As Monday's opening day of the meetings came and went, several signs pointed to the Nationals as a potential third team in a Ramirez trade -- a conduit through which the Red Sox can move Ramirez to a team such as the San Francisco Giants or Seattle Mariners while getting back the combination of pieces they want in return.

"We're in the middle of it," Bowden said with a sly smile, demurring in response to a casual question about the big-buzz plotlines dominating the discourse in the teeming hotel lobby Monday. "It ends up involving us somehow." Then, with a mixture of reservation and glee, he added, "I don't know how we get in the middle of it."

By evening, a Nationals official quickly shot down a speculative question regarding the team's involvement in the Ramirez talks. But with the Nationals setting their sights this week on long-term growth, Bowden himself seemed energized by the mere thought of being involved in something so big.

"If there's an opportunity out there where [another team] can win quicker but we can win for the long-term," Bowden said, "we're going to consider that type of deal. And we have, and we will."

Ramirez is one link in a chain of big-name, big-baggage left fielders whose intertwined destinies formed the most compelling story line of the meetings' opening day. The Red Sox were believed to be close to completing the signing of J.D. Drew to a four- or five-year deal worth $14 million per year. Drew, who last month opted out of the final three years and $33 million of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, would essentially replace Ramirez as the Red Sox' left fielder and David Ortiz's primary protector in the lineup.

Two baseball executives on Monday said Ramirez, whose Red Sox contract pays him salaries of $19 million (some of it deferred) in each of the next two seasons, is not insisting upon his two team options for 2009 and 2010 to be picked up as a condition of his approving a trade. This time, as opposed to past winters when Ramirez has asked for a trade, he simply wants out of Boston.

Meantime, the Giants' interest in Ramirez is partially a result of their apparent willingness to part ways with Barry Bonds, the 42-year-old left fielder who has spent the last 14 seasons of his prolific career with the team. Bonds, whose 734 career homers leaves him 21 shy of Hank Aaron's all-time record, was not offered arbitration by the Giants last month, a move that rankled agent Jeff Borris.

The Giants have indicated they do not see Bonds as a priority, Borris said Monday. "A guy of his stature should be on the top of their priority list," he said. "We're frustrated things have dragged on this long."

Borris insisted there remains a market outside of San Francisco. "Is there a market for the most prolific offensive player in the last 70 years?" Borris said rhetorically in response to a reporter's question. Industry sources said Monday that Borris is seeking a one-year deal of around $14 million for Bonds.

But if there is another team willing to pay that for Bonds, it has not materialized. Despite reports tying the Baltimore Orioles to Bonds, Orioles Executive Vice President Mike Flanagan said on Monday, "He has not been a consideration of ours."

The Giants' play for Ramirez, meantime, stalled in recent weeks because of their incompatibility with Boston's demands for late-inning relief help and a starting shortstop. But the Nationals, who consider everyone on their roster save for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman expendable, conceivably have those pieces in closer Chad Cordero and either Cristian Guzman or Felipe Lopez. The Nationals, in turn, would be satisfied to receive a handful of premium prospects from the Giants, or a young starting pitcher such as Noah Lowry.

Even if the whole thing falls through -- or even if it never existed to begin with -- Bowden clearly relishes being at the center of something that people are talking about.

"I don't think if we make a deal it will be a blockbuster deal," he said Monday. "But I could be wrong."

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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