The opportunity arose yesterday for the Washington Nationals -- out of the playoff chase, finishing their inaugural season with three games against Philadelphia this weekend -- to make a trade, a minor move in which they would send veteran reliever Mike Stanton to the Boston Red Sox for a pair of pitching prospects. Jim Bowden, the general manager who, by his own admission, "might have this job for two days or 20 years," mulled it over, but not for long.
"It's a no-brainer from our perspective," Bowden said yesterday afternoon. "With three games left in the season, and Mike's a free agent at the end of the year, and we don't get any compensation when he walks, and we can get two young arms that we like for him? This fits into how we want to build."
So the Nationals dealt Stanton. Yet even as the club continues to pursue such transactions and prepares for what is likely to be a busy offseason, exactly who will be doing the building remains in question. A year ago yesterday, Major League Baseball announced it would move the Montreal Expos to the District, which had been without baseball since 1971. The franchise was still owned by the other 29 teams, but Washington provided several interested ownership groups. The long list of uncertainties -- who would own the team, who would run the business operation, and who would make the baseball decisions -- was to be resolved in the ensuing months.
Now, a year later, the long-term direction of the franchise remains undetermined because MLB still hasn't selected from among eight interested ownership groups. Team president Tony Tavares, installed in 2002 when MLB bought the Expos, doesn't know whether he'll be kept on by new ownership. Bowden, hired in November to replace outgoing Omar Minaya, pursues deals even as he wonders if he'll be able to follow his plan through. And Manager Frank Robinson, personally selected by Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig to manage the team on the field, heads into the offseason wanting to return for a fifth year, but not knowing if he'll be wanted.
"There's no way to predict if any of us will be here," Tavares said yesterday. "If you can predict when and if a decision is going to be made on ownership, then I could predict when I'll know about this position. I know there are a lot of critical things that have to take place between now and the end of October. Somebody's got to make those decisions."
Tavares said he is awaiting word from baseball officials on exactly what he can and can't pursue prior to a new owner taking over. By the end of October, the most pressing issue will be how much the club will be able to spend in free agency -- a decision that will have an enormous impact on the new owners.
For now, Bowden will continue to make baseball decisions, as he did yesterday. The Nationals acquired right-handers Rhys Taylor and Yader Peralta for Stanton, the 38-year-old left-hander who went 2-1 with a 3.58 ERA in 30 games since signing with the Nationals on July 13. Stanton, for years a key piece of the New York Yankees' bullpen, will be used by the Red Sox in their three-game series against the Yankees this weekend in Boston, a series that will determine the champion in the American League East.
Taylor, 20, went 2-2 with a 1.49 ERA in 11 games for the Red Sox's entry in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League this season. Peralta, 19, threw out of the bullpen in 27 games for three Red Sox minor-league affiliates, none higher than Class A, and went 2-3 with a 4.57 ERA.
"Our goal all year is to continue to build up the farm system," Bowden said. "We've got a long ways to go. We like both arms. They both have a chance. We are trying to do what we've done in our Latin American program, trying to stockpile as many prospects as we can. All good organizations have a strong development and scouting programs, and that's what we want to have here."
Yet Bowden realizes that even as he makes such moves, he might not be the person doing the scouting and the developing.
"You have to do it this way," Bowden said. "It's not fair to the next owner, and it's not fair to the future of the franchise, if we put everything on hold. We want to continue to act like a stable organization."
Yet regardless of how they act, Tavares, Bowden and Robinson all know the situation is inherently unstable, and each is, to a certain extent, trying to stake out his own turf, because none of them is certain who will be making the decisions about their futures. Tavares, though, made one thing clear yesterday.
"If I came back, I would bring Jim back," Tavares said.
Asked about Robinson, Tavares said, "That would be up to the general manager. I didn't hire any of those coaches, and I'm not going to fire any of those coaches."
With one win in the three remaining games, Robinson will have posted winning records in three of his four seasons with the franchise. Yet he admits he is in a greater state of flux now than he was in Montreal.
"The uncertainty wasn't there the last three seasons," Robinson said. "I knew there was a 99 percent chance I'd be back if I wanted to be back. But now, who knows?"
So as they head into the final three games of a season that was, at times, magical, the three men who ushered baseball back into the nation's capital will spend the weekend at RFK Stadium, not knowing if it will be their last.
"None of us are entitled to anything," Tavares said. "Any of us might think we've done a good job, and in many cases we have. But baseball doesn't owe us anything, and the new owners don't owe us anything. We were hired to do a job, and that's what we've done, but it doesn't mean anything about any of our futures."