By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009
PITTSBURGH, July 31 -- In the frantic, final afternoon, with hours remaining until Major League Baseball's 4 p.m. trading deadline, Washington Nationals acting general manager Mike Rizzo kept placing phone calls. He was back in his office in Washington, where a flowchart of the organization -- a map of every prospect -- hangs on the wall. Friday was his best remaining chance of the year to revise the map. Eventually, he'd deal two players, free-agents-to-be Nick Johnson and Joe Beimel, in separate trades that netted three minor league pitchers. The deals, from Rizzo's seat, improved the team's future.
But the trade deadline unfolds at different levels, and within the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park where the Nationals spent a nervous and eventually emotional afternoon, Friday's two trades -- for whatever gain they may bring in the future -- resonated with a ground level sense of loss. Suddenly, the Nationals had 23 players and two jerseys left to hang unworn. Beimel was heading to Colorado, for minor league relievers Ryan Mattheus and Robinson Fabian. Johnson was heading to Florida, for Class AA starter Aaron Thompson, the best prospect of the bunch.
In a sense, Washington was prepared for the day of player movement. Last-place teams stocked with well-regarded veterans -- the sort who belong in September pennant races -- don't often keep quiet on deadline day. Ryan Zimmerman, reflecting later, called the deals almost "inevitable." Interim manager Jim Riggleman, anticipating some roster shuffling, had composed four separate lineups to account for 11th-hour changes.
Over the previous days, Beimel and Johnson had heard their names mentioned in numerous rumors. But both only received word of their departures after they'd concluded they were sticking around. Beimel was eating lunch at the Tap Room restaurant, connected to the team's downtown hotel, just a few minutes before 3 p.m., when his phone rang. At that moment, Beimel said, "I was thinking I was gonna be here the rest of the year."
Then he talked to Rizzo.
Beimel arrived at PNC Park merely to gather his belongings and say goodbye. For him, the chance to join Colorado -- a team one game out of the wild card race -- offered a jolt of excitement. "The reason you play this game is because you want to win," he said. "You want to win a championship." After all, Beimel, 32, had joined Washington only in mid-March, a one-year free agent deal. He'd produced. He had a 3.40 ERA. That was his ticket into a pennant race.
When he walked into the Washington clubhouse, Riggleman, pitching coach Steve McCatty and numerous teammates offered their handshakes or their thank-yous. Beimel had stabilized a bullpen and, by Riggleman's account, had been "a calming influence for a lot of guys."
But at this hour, the clubhouse was still buzzing. The MLB Network, volume jacked up, played on a television hanging from one corner. A group of veterans including Johnson, Josh Bard and Austin Kearns kept careful watch. A countdown clock on the screen ticked away -- 15 minutes, 14 minutes. . . .
"You still here?" Beimel asked Johnson.
Minutes earlier, the chances of Johnson's departure had appeared all but dead. But 17 minutes before the deadline, the trade with Florida, heavily discussed in the previous 24 hours, became a possibility. The Marlins were suddenly offering Thompson, a pitcher Rizzo preferred to Ross Tucker, another minor leaguer who'd been offered. Three Washington pro scouts had recently watched Thompson, who was 5-9 with a 4.11 ERA in Class AA. Each envisioned him as a future middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Washington, which agreed to pay the bulk of Johnson's $5.5 million salary, swung the trade.
"There was a reason it went up to the very, very few minutes before the trade deadline at 4 p.m.," Rizzo said. "It's because we knew the player that we identified that we wanted, and we waited for him."
But Johnson didn't find out right away.
After 4 p.m. passed, Johnson grabbed his bat and headed with hitting coach Rick Eckstein to an indoor batting cage.
"I didn't think anything would happen," Johnson said. "Then I got the tap on my shoulder."
Just like that, everything changed. Johnson, at first, was so emotional that he knew only one response: He stayed in the cages with Eckstein and kept taking swings. But eventually, he reemerged in the clubhouse, as team employees helped him with a travel itinerary. Johnson choked back tears. He hugged teammates. In previous weeks, the Nationals had discussed a contract extension with their starting first baseman but couldn't get anything done. Though Johnson acknowledged the chance that he could rejoin Washington as a free agent this offseason, he also recognized the moment's significance. He was the last remaining Montreal Expo.
"One of the more popular guys to wear the Nationals uniform since the franchise moved here," Riggleman called him.
"That passion inside of him was special," Eckstein said. "It is special. You miss that. I'm going to miss that."
With Johnson gone and the team's roster reduced to 23, Riggleman posted a new lineup. Adam Dunn was shifted from the outfield to first base, where he'll remain for the rest of the season. Willie Harris was shifted from the bench to left field. After the game, the Nationals recalled outfielder Elijah Dukes from Class AAA Syracuse and purchased the contract of reliever Jorge Sosa.
None of the pitchers acquired for the two veterans will provide immediate help. Thompson, however, joins a wealth of prospects that the team envisions as future starters. Mattheus and Fabian, both relievers, will require a little more work. Fabian is a raw Class A pitcher with a 6.24 ERA. Mattheus ranked among Colorado's top prospects, until he underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in July.
"We felt it was a risk worth taking to roll the dice and see if this guy returns to his pre-injury form," Rizzo said, speaking of Mattheus. "If he does that, we've got a steal here for a situational left-handed reliever that was going to walk away in two months."
Later on Friday, after the deadline, Rizzo described the organization's philosophy. It elected to retain other sought-after veterans -- Dunn and Josh Willingham -- who weren't coming up on free agency. "We are not rebuilding," Rizzo explained. "This is a team that, in my opinion, is not far away from being a good, solid baseball team."