Next week, Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden heads to baseball's general managers' meetings in Palm Springs, Calif. Two hours away, Frank Robinson makes his home in Los Angeles. And while Bowden speaks with other clubs about potential trades and talks to agents about their clients, hoping to add new players, no one in Washington can say whether Robinson will be back to manage those players in 2006.
Bowden reiterated yesterday that even as he makes moves, such as swapping third baseman Vinny Castilla for right-hander Brian Lawrence on Thursday night, he wants to give the Nationals' new owner an opportunity to have input on the manager and the coaching staff.
"If they're going to pay $450 million for the team," Bowden said, "they should have a voice in those decisions."
Major League Baseball, which owns the Nationals, would like to identify an owner by the time the owners of all 30 clubs meet Nov. 16-17 in Milwaukee. The scenarios that could unfold thereafter are almost too numerous to identify. Bowden is signed through April, but a new ownership group could elect to get rid of him immediately. Team president Tony Tavares and Robinson, who has managed the team for the last four seasons, are also at the whim of the new owners. Conversely, the new owners could elect to keep any one part, or all, of the current management structure.
"We have to be as patient as possible," Bowden said. "I'd like to give it to Thanksgiving. If it goes beyond that, we'll have to move forward, and I've told Tony Tavares that. But until then, we're making our best effort to allow the new owners to have as much input as we can give them."
Still, Bowden said he has told all the members of the coaching staff that they would be best off trying to get other jobs. There is almost no chance that the staff will return intact.
"I recommended to all of them that they seek employment elsewhere," Bowden said. "There are no guarantees here. I put a memo out to all the other clubs, providing each of our coaches' phone numbers, so that those clubs can notify them if they're interested in hiring them. Their situation is extremely clear."
But the makeup of the Nationals' staff for next year is not. The fact that an owner still hasn't been named, 13 months after baseball originally announced it would move the Montreal Expos to Washington, means the franchise remains in a unique position. The longer Washington waits to assemble a coaching staff, the fewer quality candidates will remain. For instance, according to two sources with knowledge of the Nationals' thinking, the club was interested in hiring former Kansas City manager Tony Pena as its third base coach. But with no owner and little long-term stability in their front office structure, the Nationals couldn't push aggressively with an offer, and Pena was hired this week as first base coach of the New York Yankees.
Those kinds of developments give Tavares a "gut sense that we got to start deciding soon," he said.
"If we don't start moving, we're going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel," Tavares said. "You lose people every now and then if you wait."
Though they have been told to look for other work, the members of the 2005 coaching staff feel in limbo. Their contracts expired Oct. 31, as did those of the front office staff, who are now working without contracts.
"I'm just living with it," hitting coach Tom McCraw said. "That's all you can do. They're going to do what they want to do, and there's nothing nobody can do about it. But I would think there would be some consideration for the guys considering the job some of them have done for the last four years."
Third base coach Dave Huppert said he had been in contact with other franchises about minor league jobs. "But you don't want to give up a big league job to go back to the minors if you don't have to," he said.
Huppert, first base coach Don Buford, bullpen coach Bob Natal and roving instructor Jack Voigt are all unlikely to return regardless of who owns the team and makes decisions on the management team. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire, whose staff finished with the fourth-best ERA in the National League, and bench coach Eddie Rodriguez have better chances of coming back. There is a chance, though, that the entire staff will be replaced, and Robinson, who is extremely close to McCraw and Buford, would have to be comfortable with such a development in order to return.
Robinson did not return repeated phone calls this week. In a recent interview with mlb.com, he said: "Jim Bowden has told me that he can't do anything until ownership is named. After that, we'll see." Robinson, 70, is 314-334 in his four seasons. The team posted winning records in 2002 and 2003 and went 81-81 last season.
Bowden, too, has seen his name surface for other jobs, particularly in Los Angeles, because he is close with former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, an adviser to owner Frank McCourt. But Tavares said that the Dodgers have not asked permission to speak to Bowden.
"We're trying to be patient," Tavares said. "But unless we start getting a sign real soon that a decision [on an owner] is imminent, I think you got to start moving on."
Nationals Note: The club is expected to name former major league catcher John Stearns as the manager of Class AA Harrisburg, a team source said. Stearns, who has served as a manager in the Mets system as well as a major league coach, would replace Keith Bodie.