With No Trades, Nationals Stay in 'Exact Same Spot'

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

When July arrived and the heart of baseball's trade season began, the Washington Nationals held two veteran hitters -- Dmitri Young and Ronnie Belliard -- who might have brought prospects in a deal. They had a pair of relievers, Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch, who were coveted by several contenders who needed to fortify their bullpens.

But when yesterday's non-waiver trade deadline passed, the Nationals still had all four players, and had even extended the contracts of Young and Belliard through 2009. So the self-evaluation for a franchise that is desperately trying to build a winner was a bit difficult: The Nationals weren't satisfied with what was offered for Cordero or Rauch, so they didn't improve their organization.

"I think we're in the exact same spot we were a month ago," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "I mean, we certainly didn't give up any opportunities to get good young players to help us in the future. We did not walk away from them. I'd say we're treading water from where we were a month ago."

The most intense discussions yesterday, according to several major league sources, involved Cordero, the 25-year-old closer who has saved 98 games since 2005. The New York Mets appeared to be the most likely destination for Cordero, in part because of General Manager Omar Minaya's affinity for him -- he was the GM of the Nationals' predecessors, the Montreal Expos, when Cordero was drafted -- and in part because they needed bullpen help.

But according to sources, the Mets put all of their top prospects -- from outfielders Lastings Milledge and Carlos Gomez to right-hander Mike Pelfrey -- off limits. Their best offer was right-hander Philip Humber, who is 10-6 with a 4.21 ERA for Class AAA New Orleans.

Therefore, the two teams tried to involve a third club, Arizona, in an attempt to complete a deal. The Diamondbacks, already with an all-star closer in Jose Valverde, were also interested in Cordero, in part because they expect to be contenders in 2008 and 2009, and Cordero isn't a free agent until after the 2009 season.

The Nationals' main Arizona target was outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who was ranked as the 18th-best prospect in the game by Baseball America before the season. Cordero would have gone to the Mets, but sources said the Diamondbacks would not part with Gonzalez. The deal fell through.

That left most in the clubhouse, particularly Cordero, relieved.

"I want to see the new ballpark," Cordero said. "Being through all we've been through the last couple years, I want to be here and see it through."

Manager Manny Acta said he was happy to have the back end of his bullpen intact.

"Obviously, we're better with them than without them in the near future," Acta said. "We have to keep in mind, too, that . . . our payroll is going to go up -- so we can get some players in the free agent market, too."

Bowden was left to explain why the Nationals -- who are in last place in the National League East for the third straight season -- stood pat. He said the market is such that very few teams are giving up high-level prospects. The only exception in this trade market was Atlanta, who parted with promising catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia as part of a deal for Texas first baseman Mark Teixeira. Boston wouldn't give up pitcher Clay Buchholz, outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury or pitcher Michael Bowden in discussions with the Nationals, according to one source.

Bowden also said that he left one deal on the table because he would not part with young players at short-season Class A Vermont, where young pitchers such as Adrian Alaniz, Glenn Gibson, Hassan Peña and Colton Willems are performing well.

"It's hard walking away from some deals for 19-year-old players," Bowden said.

Last year, Bowden was criticized in some corners for not trading free agent-to-be Alfonso Soriano. He was adamant at the time -- and since -- that no deal made sense. But he gained a reputation in the game as a general manager who overestimated his players' value on the market.

"I am never going to feel bad for asking for players that can help us win," Bowden said. "I'm not going to take players that can't help the Washington Nationals win at the big league level. So if they're going to criticize me, I'd much rather have them criticize me for asking for too much than asking for too little."

Staff writer Marc Carig contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company