This offseason, the best thing the Nationals have going for them is GM Jim Bowden. The commissioner won't give them an owner. The D.C. Council won't give them a new stadium. Rivals stole two of their best pitchers. Agents tell their clients not to sign with a team in such flux. Yet Bowden gambled this week and traded for a genuine 35-homer, 30-steal star for the Nats.
In what was dissolving into an atrocious winter for the Nats, somebody had to do something. At least Bowden had the brass to try. You can be sure he'll take heat for dealing popular Brad Wilkerson (and two others) for Alfonso Soriano. But Bowden has always been a flak magnet. When he wheels and deals, the wail of critics follows him. They're usually wrong.
His mistakes, like Cristian Guzman, are seldom forgotten. Or, like Vinny Castilla, are often exaggerated. His successes, like getting Jose Guillen, Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco last winter for peanuts, seem to get overlooked. When he nails the No. 4 pick in the draft, cynics say, "Everybody knew Ryan Zimmerman would be good."
Now, the complaint has already arrived that the Nats have too many second basemen. Soriano despises the idea of moving to left field, though his 20 errors a year at second should clue him that it's a fine idea. Three-time all-star Jose Vidro, now rehabbing his knee and quad, was the soul of the Expos. Junior Spivey was an all-star in Arizona and started in Milwaukee. All have talent and ego. Where will they all play?
Somehow, the obvious answer gets overlooked. Between now and Opening Day, it will become obvious who plays second base, who gets traded or who shifts positions. There's time for that. If Vidro, 31, gets healthy, teams will line up at dawn to trade for him. If he doesn't, you'll be twice as glad to see Soriano. Lots of things take care of themselves. But "main chances" are rare. For the Nats, Soriano could be one of them.
"If you're ever going to be really good, then you need three starting pitchers who are either 1's or 2's and you need three hitters to bat 3-4-5 who can all drive in 100 runs. The rest you can get," Bowden said yesterday. "Soriano is a real 3-4-5 guy. When you get a shot at a piece of the puzzle like that, you have to do it."
Bowden is retooling a team that finished last in the sport in home runs and second to last in stolen bases. In Soriano, he gets a bunch of both. Some players have a 30-30 season once in a career. The last four seasons, Soriano has averaged 35 homers, 31 steals, 41 doubles, 105 runs and 97 RBI. He can bat anywhere in the order. That means you have lineup flexibility in arranging the team's other quality hitters -- Guillen, Vidro, Nick Johnson and Zimmerman. Why, some combination might actually work!
Of course, the Nats had to give quality for quality. But Wilkerson (.248, 11 homers) was completely flummoxed by RFK's deep fences. In Texas, he may thrive again. But would he ever have solved RFK? Soriano, on the other hand, can probably translate his power to RFK. In '02 and '03, he hit 39 and 38 homers playing in Yankee Stadium's Death Valley.
Stat bugs will note that Soriano slugged .656 at home last year and an atrocious .374 on the road. Yikes! That better be a one-year fluke, otherwise the double-play combination of Guzman and Soriano could be Bowden's ticket back to "Cold Pizza."
Such risks are part of Bowden's charm. The Nats need a colorful GM who'll run his mouth, relish some controversy and get the town talking baseball. If you're a GM whose nascent fan base is groaning every day as Loaiza and Carrasco (both Bowden gems) are lost to free agency or an A.J. Burnett is too expensive to sign, you can't pretend that it's not happening. (That's "the Oriole Way.") Instead, as soon as MLB authorized an increase of $7 million in the Nats' budget on Monday, Bowden went out and spent most of it by Wednesday. But, especially if Zimmerman fulfills half his promise, the Nats now have a heart of the order that's worth watching.
The case for Bowden is so strong it's fascinating he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt here. Yes, Guzman hit .219. But he hit .281 after Aug. 1 and .325 in September with 12 RBI. Can't we give the guy a second chance? The rap against Castilla is simply wrong. He set a franchise record for fielding percentage and all his pertinent stats last year (OPS, RBI per at-bat) were identical to his numbers at sea level in Atlanta in '02-'03. He produced what Bowden expected.
The final act of the Castilla story was Bowden at his finest. He managed to trade Castilla, opening a spot for Zimmerman, while also making a payroll-neutral deal for Brian Lawrence of San Diego. The last four years Lawrence has a 4.10 ERA and a 44-56 record -- or 11-14 per season. He's what Tony Armas Jr. wasn't: a battler who eats innings (205 a year) and never misses a start. Someday, if the Nats become a top contender, a Lawrence would be an anchor. Right now, welcome aboard.
Despite all this, Bowden rubs some people wrong and always has. Hey, that's why he was available! He's as bumptious as a windup teddy bear on Christmas morning and a modern-day baseball carnival barker. He's as confident as if he had five World Series rings instead of a career resume that basically reads: "Endured Marge Schott longer than humanly imaginable."
In other words, the Red Sox are probably wise not to hire him as their next GM, even if he is a native New Englander. He'd be tough for the elitist Old Towne Team cult to stomach. But he's perfect for a club like the Nats that has to scuffle and scrap.
Because Bowden rolls the dice, his crap outs can be beauties. In September, the Nats desperately needed starting pitchers to stay in the hunt. Yet Bowden had traded them all -- Tomo Ohka, Claudio Vargas, even Zach Day. Why'd he do it? Because, when it comes to baseball, he's a little bit nuts. When each of those deals was done, it seemed to maximize the chances that, if everything broke right, the Nats might make the playoffs. They were all aggressive, creative but risky "brass ring" decisions -- just like dealing for Soriano as he enters his walk year. Yet all those moves, both the ones that worked and those that didn't, helped keep this whole town standing on its head until the 149th game of the season, didn't they?
Right now, what Washington needs -- besides a new owner, a new park and a decent TV deal -- is a team worth talking about in the hot stove league. Until this week, the Nats were dead at the water cooler. Now, they're alive again. One bat as credible as Soriano's can improve a whole attack. Now, if Bowden can trade for a quality No. 3 starter, or sign a solid free agent starter in January with New Owner Dollars, or make a blockbuster Vidro-deal in spring training, then the Nats might actually be as interesting next year as they were last season.
If they are, then Bowden did it. And if they aren't, at least he tried. These days, who else can say as much?