The Washington Nationals yesterday extended the contract of General Manager Jim Bowden through April, a move that gives the ownerless franchise an idea of who will be making decisions on the roster and coaching staff headed into the 2006 season. Bowden, in turn, jumped headlong into the offseason maneuvering, signing veteran utility man Damian Jackson in hopes of strengthening the team's bench and improving its speed.
Bowden, whose contract was to expire on Monday, also reshaped his front office, naming former major league catcher and manager Bob Boone to head the player development department, the most significant in a series of appointments that put Bowden's stamp on the baseball side of the Nationals' operation. The Nationals also signed second baseman Bernie Castro, who made his major league debut with the Baltimore Orioles last season, and put Andy Dunn in charge of administration of the farm system. Boone and Dunn replace Adam Wogan, who was fired earlier this month.
Next up: decisions on Manager Frank Robinson and the coaching staff. Bowden said he would like to have an answer "hopefully by Thanksgiving."
"The difference between the general manager and the coaching staff is they don't go to work till February," Bowden said. "The general manager has to go to work right now. We'd like to let the new owner make as many of those major decisions as possible."
Yet even without an owner, it's clear Bowden, who spoke with the Arizona Diamondbacks about their open general manager's job, will be making decisions, both major and minor, for the Nationals as the free agency and trade period begins. Team president Tony Tavares, whose contract expires Nov. 30, has said that if he were to retain his position when the team is sold, he would bring Bowden back. Eight groups have bid to purchase the Nationals, who are owned by Major League Baseball.
Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig has spent much of the last two months winnowing the list to three finalists. Baseball officials would like to name an owner by next month's owners' meetings, which take place Nov. 16-17 in Milwaukee. The new owner, regardless of who it is, will inherit Bowden for the near term.
"He's got a vision," Tavares said. "He's got a plan, and he sticks with his plan. I think for all those reasons, and the fact that he's a very hard-working guy -- I'd stack him up with anybody in that GM's capacity -- he deserved this."
Tavares said he did not gauge the feelings of the ownership groups in contention before pursuing the extension. "If I get into that game, everybody's going to have a different opinion," Tavares said.
Bowden's aggressive nature, which has led to both praise and criticism, showed immediately after the extension was announced. The free agency filing period for players begins the day after the World Series, and Bowden pounced immediately on Jackson in hopes of addressing the Nationals' glaring lack of speed. Washington was last in the National League in stolen bases and stolen base percentage.
Jackson, 32, signed a one-year, $700,000 deal. In parts of 10 seasons with seven franchises, he has hit .245, including .255 with nine doubles and five homers in 118 games for the San Diego Padres in 2005. Bowden likes the fact that Jackson can play every infield position other than first as well as all three outfield spots. He is likely to get most of his action backing up at second, shortstop and center field. His 15 stolen bases would have represented one-third of the Nationals' total.
"We had a very slow bench," Bowden said. "You watch the World Series, and you see [Chicago's] Willie Harris come off the bench, get a base hit to left field, and score the winning run. That's speed off the bench. You watch last year's postseason, and you see Dave Roberts [then with Boston] steal a huge base. Damian was valuable to the Padres in exactly that way."
Castro, 26, hit .288 with six stolen bases in 24 games for the Orioles, and would add speed -- 41 stolen bases for Class AAA Ottawa -- should he make the team.
The Nationals have a crowded infield, though. Washington won't pursue free agent Deivi Cruz, acquired in August from San Francisco. But second baseman Junior Spivey will be recovered from a broken forearm by spring training, and Jamey Carroll served as the team's utility man, hitting .251 with three stolen bases in 303 at-bats. Where does Jackson's addition leave Spivey and Carroll?
"With important roles on the team," Bowden said. "They can all fit -- and that's assuming there are no other injuries or trades."
Three Nationals, including Cruz, were among the first to file for free agency yesterday. Outfielder Preston Wilson, acquired in a July trade with Colorado, and left-handed reliever Joey Eischen officially became free agents on the first day possible. The Nationals will not attempt to re-sign Wilson, and Bowden would like to improve on Eischen as a left-hander in the bullpen, perhaps by pursuing Baltimore's B.J. Ryan.
The Nationals have extended offers to the two free agents they would most like to retain, right-handers Hector Carrasco and Esteban Loaiza. Washington offered Loaiza two years at $4 million a year, and Loaiza's representatives asked for three years at $7 million per. Loaiza went 12-10 with a 3.77 ERA in 217 innings in 2005, when he made $2.9 million.
"We want Esteban to come back here," Bowden said. "He pitched a lot of innings for us. We like him enough that we offered him a raise and two guaranteed years. We'll see."
Nationals Note: The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network has signed another cable distributor to broadcast the team's games during the 2006 season: Charter Communications Inc. MASN, which is majority owned by the Baltimore Orioles, has signed up several cable operators in the region to carry Nationals games, but has been unable to get wide distribution because it is being sued by cable giant Comcast. A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge has ruled against Comcast in the lawsuit, but an appeal is pending.
Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.