Bud Selig's master plan was for baseball to return to Washington. In the dying days of the Montreal Expos, Selig made clear his desire that the team move out of Quebec and into the nation's capital. There were rumors that other cities were being considered, sure, but few people took seriously the idea that major league baseball could succeed in Monterrey, Mexico. Washington had a baseball-ready stadium and, not so coincidentally, would put baseball in the back yard of the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill.
Well, it didn't work out that way.
The Nationals inherited a front office run on a shoestring budget, a fallow farm system, and a team that hadn't been interesting in ten years. In 2008, the team lost 102 games, the worst record in baseball, and the worst mark for the franchise since 1976. But on the bright side, at least the front office wasn't under investigation by the FBI.
Oops . . .
Over the past year, federal investigators have been investigating charges that a handful of baseball teams were skimming bonus money away from young Caribbean players. The Nationals were among the teams named, with GM Jim Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo targeted by the investigation. Rijo was fired by the Nats a week ago, and the axe fell on Bowden on Sunday. He "resigned" days after word got out that the team was probably going to fire him.
Things weren't supposed to happen this way. But if you look at the situation realistically, we shouldn't be surprised. Well, the FBI investigation is surprising, but the team's overall failure was almost predictable given the circumstances.
There were three different problems that essentially "doomed" the Washington Nationals to this period of futility. They were: the city, the franchise, and the personnel. Each one played a part in bringing about the team's humiliating 2008-09 performance.
One wonders why Major League Baseball was so anxious to move back to Washington. Two different major league franchises ended up leaving town because of attendance problems: the original Washington Senators in 1961 (who became the Minnesota Twins) and the expansion Washington Senators in 1971 (who became the Texas Rangers). Granted, this was because the Washington teams were terrible. But that's part of the point. Washington hadn't seen a consistently good baseball team since the late 1930s. Before the Nationals came to town, a Washington baseball team hadn't drawn a million fans since 1946. The last time they finished higher than 5th in attendance in the AL was 1945.
The question is why the MLB considered Washington to be a hotbed of baseball fever in 2005. The team hadn't had a baseball team in 34 years, and before that, hadn't drawn a decent crowd since the Truman Administration. This isn't a slight against Washington baseball fans or the city itself. But when baseball moved into Washington, they were moving into a city that had been burnt out on baseball for thirty years and then deprived of baseball for the next thirty.
Again, I'm not knocking Washington baseball fans, who have shown admirable support for their new team. But when baseball decided to move to Washington, they either ignored or were ignorant of the discouraging history of Washington baseball over the past sixty years. Or, perhaps, the owners were just more interested in regaining a foothold inside the Beltway than they were in baseball.
The Montreal Expos were one of the NL's best teams in the 1980s. They won at least 90 games twice in the decade, finished with a winning record in all but two seasons and made their only postseason appearance (in 1981). Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Steve Rogers, Al Oliver, and Dennis Martinez were some of the stars that made the Expos so competitive.
The trend continued in the early 90s. After a last-place finish in 1991, the team finished 2nd in the NL East in both 1992 and 1993. In 1994, the team reached its peak. When the baseball strike stopped the season, the Expos had the best record in baseball, at 74-40. They had one of the best outfields in recent memory, with Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, and Larry Walker patrolling the turf. The pitching staff was led by underrated hurler Ken Hill and power closer John Wetteland. They also had a raw, 22-year-old right-hander named Pedro Martinez. None of these players were older than 27, meaning that the Expos had the chance to build a contending team that would last.
Instead, the Expos went into extreme cost-cutting mode. Alou and Walker were let go as soon as they were free agents. Grissom was traded to the Braves for three players who would never appear on a Wheaties box. Hill went to the Cardinals for three guys named Bullinger, Eversgerd and Stovall. Wetteland went to the Yankees for Fernando Seguignol and cash. Future All-Star reliever Jeff Shaw went to the White Sox for the remains of Jose DeLeon. The only one who really stuck around was Pedro Martinez, who would finish his tenure with the team in 1997 by winning the Cy Young Award. That made him too expensive for the Expos, so he was off to Boston as a free agent. (Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for transaction information.)
The team was essentially stripped of its assets by owner Claude Brochu. The 1995 club finished last, and despite an encouraging second-place finish in 1996, the Expos were doomed to mediocrity thereafter, finishing in fourth place for four straight years before dropping to last.
If it seemed like things couldn't get any worse, they did in 2001 when art dealer Jeffrey Loria purchased the team. Loria stayed around long enough to scold the city for not agreeing to build a new stadium and scold the fans for not showing up. Loria blamed the 1994-1995 strike, which is odd, since attendance actually rose in 1996, when the team was contending.
The solution to Loria's problem involved a complicated three-way ownership change the likes of which hadn't been seen in baseball since the turn of the century. Loria was allowed to buy the Florida Marlins. He stripped them down like he did the Expos, and is currently using them in an elaborate protection racket perpetrated against the state of Florida; "give me a stadium or the team dies," in a sense. Marlins owner John Henry, as part of this agreement, was allowed to buy the ownerless Red Sox. As for the Expos? They would be owned and operated by the other 29 major league teams. Does anyone see a potential problem with this?
The owners ran the Expos on a shoestring budget. GM Omar Minaya once said that he had "29 owners but only six employees" (Dewey & Acocella, Total Baseball). The Expos were denied anything that could be classified as a "perk," giving them a huge financial disadvantage, which was quite likely by design. With the MLB literally controlling the Expos, they could talk openly about moving the team to Washington, Portland, or Monterrey. And then they had the gall to publicly ask why the Montreal fans were giving up on the team.
Amazingly, the Expos still managed to perform on the field. Their 83-79 finish in 2002 was striking in view of their numerous handicaps. They managed the same record in 2003. But 2003 was more impressive, because the MLB forced the Expos to play 22 of their "home" games in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
This was a horrifically cynical move by baseball. The games in Puerto Rico were great for the Puerto Rican fans, despite the fact that the park's capacity was a slim 19,000, which doesn't make for a big gate. The travel took a terrible toll on the team, which logged miles by the thousands shuttling between the east coast, the west coast, Canada and Puerto Rico.
Despite the fact that everyone knew it was coming, team officials didn't officially announce the move to Washington until September of 2004. The Montreal Expos were dead, killed off by a real-life Rachel Phelps.
Everyone blamed the death of the Expos on the Montreal fans. After all, they said, the attendance was so low in those last years in Montreal that they just "had" to move away, right? The reality is that fans stopped showing up after ownership stripped the team in the 1995-97 period. From 1997-2004, no one in the Expos' ownership showed any commitment to fielding a winning baseball team. Instead, they were either demanding money from the city of Montreal, moving home games across the continent, threatening to contract the team or openly speculating about moving away. Why should the fans care about the Expos when, quite obviously, no one else did?
And besides, the idea that Montreal could never be a baseball city is absurd. The Dodgers had their top minor league team in Montreal for years; Jackie Robinson integrated the minor leagues as a member of the Montreal team in 1946. The team's move to Olympic Stadium in 1977 saw attendance more than double, to 1.4 million, ranking them 6th in the NL. The Expos were never among the league leaders in the category, but they were consistently drawing crowds above the National League average. This didn't change until 1998, the year after Pedro Martinez left for free agency. With all the stars of the 1994 team now gone and no sign that management planned to replace them, the team finished last in the NL in attendance. The fans didn't kill baseball in Montreal; bad management and bad baseball teams did that.
The team that arrived in Washington for the 2005 season was a shambles. Their biggest stars were Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson, and Livan Hernandez. They were coming off a 67-95, last-place finish in 2004. Their farm system was more like a dust bowl. From 1997-2004, the best players taken in the draft by the Expos were Wilkerson, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Jason Bay, Chad Cordero, Ryan Zimmerman, and current prospects Ross Detwiler and Chris Marrero. That's not a bad haul, but of all these future stars, four of them were traded away in woeful deals.
The worst came in 2002, when the Expos were desperate to get some help via trade. So Minaya acquired Bartolo Colon from Cleveland. Colon pitched well, but left after the season as a free agent. In exchange, the Expos gave up Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens for Colon and spare arm Tim Drew. It's easily one of the worst trades in recent history. In fact, it may turn out to be a record. If Grady Sizemore ever wins an MVP (and I think he will), then the Indians will become the first team ever (I think) to trade away a future MVP and a future Cy Young Award winner (Lee) in the same deal. As for Bay, current Red Sox hero, he was traded to the Mets in 2002 for Lou Collier, an utterly forgettable utility infielder. As if this weren't enough, the Nationals failed to sign their first-round draft pick in 2008 (Aaron Crow), because they were too cheap to meet his bonus demands.
So the Nationals were a poor team with an even poorer farm system. It would take a real genius to make a winner out of that combination. For that genius, the Nats turned to baseball's former boy wonder, who got the General Manager's job in Cincinnati at age 31 and sent his team to the playoffs in 1995.
But the Nats would get more than they bargained for in Jim Bowden . . .
In 1993, Jim Bowden took over as General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He was the youngest GM in major league history when he took the job, inheriting a team in transition. Owner Marge Schott had just become embroiled in another controversy over her positive remarks about Adolf Hitler. And while the franchise was in pretty good shape, just three years removed from a World Championship, they needed a fresh start.
But the core of the ballclub was still solid, and the team was back in contention in 1994. Veterans Barry Larkin and Jose Rijo anchored the club, but Bowden deserves credit for his work in shaping the team. He brought in shortstop Tony Fernandez and closer Jeff Brantley as free agents, and nabbed two underrated players from the Mariners: second baseman Bret Boone, and the troubled (but still talented) Kevin Mitchell. The team was in first place in the NL Central when the strike canceled the season.
The team took up where it left off in 1995, with Bowden adding free agents Benito Santiago and Ron Gant. Despite a patchwork pitching staff, the offense was good enough to get the Reds into the postseason. But they got swept by the Braves in the NLCS. Still, Bowden was looking like a true boy wonder in the Queen City, guiding the club to back-to-back first-place finishes for the first time since the Big Red Machine was at its peak.
The Reds fell off in 1996, finishing at 81-81. One problem was that a lot of Bowden's free agent deals were for only one year; his penchant for short-term solutions left him filling the same holes every off-season. Plus, the team's patchwork pitching staff was starting to wear down. In 1997, the starting rotation completely tanked, as veteran patches such as Mike Morgan, Dave Burba, John Smiley, and Pete Schourek turned out not to be short- or long-term solutions.
1998 looked like a fresh start. Bowden sent Burba to the Indians for a polished first baseman named Sean Casey. He sent the aging Jeff Brantley to St. Louis for the powerful Dmitri Young. And he added some new faces to the rotation, including Pete Harnisch, Mike Remlinger, and Steve Parriss. The team looked good on paper, but ended up in fourth place, at 77-85.
In 1999, though, the team surged back into contention. Manager Jack McKeon compensated for the shaky starting rotation by riding ace relievers Danny Graves and Scott Sullivan hard; the two combined for 224.7 innings, a staggering total for relief pitchers. The lineup, supplemented by homegrown prospect Aaron Boone and trade acquisition Greg Vaughn, pushed the team to fourth in the league in runs scored. The Reds finished the season with a 96-67 record, tied with the Mets for the NL Wild Card. The Reds hosted the Mets in Cincinnati but lost the game; opposing pitcher Al Leiter shut out the potent Cincinnati offense.
The Reds' offense kept going in 2000, with help from new arrival Ken Griffey, Jr., but the pitching staff hit bottom. Bowden tried to stop the bleeding by getting ace Denny Neagle from the Braves (for Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger), but while Neagle pitched well, it wasn't enough. The Reds finished second.
The 2001 team dropped all the way to 66-96. An injury to Griffey left a gaping hole in the outfield. Pokey Reese's acrobatics at shortstop could no longer mask the fact that he absolutely could not hit. The struggling veterans in the starting rotation were replaced by struggling rookies. The 2002 team improved slightly, with hot prospects Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns manning the outfield corners, but the pitching staff was still a mess, with eight different pitchers making at least five starts.
In 2003, the Reds moved into Great American Ballpark. Desperate for some help, the Reds tried moving closer Danny Graves into the starting rotation. They also messed with Austin Kearns, sending him down to the minors and up again because of concerns about his "conditioning." Any hope that the brand-new ballpark would provide a grace period were dashed mid-season, when both Bowden and manager Bob Boone were fired. The team finished with a record of 69-93 and a team ERA of 5.47, only slightly ahead of Colorado for worst in the NL.
So what went wrong for Bowden? He did a pretty good job of fielding a competitive lineup, although his best fixes were temporary ones, like picking up Kevin Mitchell for a song or getting Greg Vaughn for one year. The only exception was the mega-deal that brought Griffey over from Seattle. And while it seemed like a good idea at the time, Griffey soon turned into an injury-prone albatross.
The only stability in the lineup came from Barry Larkin (whose career started winding down in 2001), Sean Casey (a good, but not great hitter) and Pokey Reese (great defense despite swinging a wet noodle at the plate). This changed with the arrival of two of Bowden's best drafts, Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns. But while Bowden could indeed swing some sweet deals and make quick fixes, he wasn't too good at looking at the big picture, rarely building from the bottom up.
The Reds' biggest problem — one Bowden never really addressed — was the starting rotation. Even the team that made the playoffs in '95 was led by the likes of an aging Jose Rijo, Pete Schourek, John Smiley, Mark Portugal and Kevin Jarvis. If you make it to the postseason with that rotation, then you need to count your lucky stars and prepare yourself for when the luck runs out.
Bowden never did. He never made strong moves to shore up the starting rotation, either by trading for pitching prospects or signing good free agents. The only big trade he made, for Denny Neagle, was negated when he turned around and sent him to the Yankees the following year. This could have been a blunder, except that Neagle imploded in the Bronx.
Bowden was great at getting that "extra guy" who could give your pitching staff an edge; but you can't build an entire pitching staff with "extra guys." When you try, you get guys like Rob Bell, Jimmy Haynes, Steve Parris, Ron Villone, and Paul Wilson taking the mound every fifth day.
Not only was pitching a problem, but Bowden's performance in the amateur draft speaks for itself. From 1993-2003, the Reds managed to draft and develop just one successful starting pitcher: Brett Tomko. And by successful, I mean just a few years spent in the majors. Tomko worked out well enough, especially as part of the package that brought Ken Griffey, Jr. to Cincinnati. But when you look at the team's drafts (and you can, thanks to Baseball-Reference.com), it's no wonder Bowden was scrambling to find somebody to take the ball every fifth day. If the best you can do in ten years is Brett Tomko, then you have a serious problem.
Offensively, Bowden can always point to the 1998 draft, when the Reds took Austin Kearns in the first round and Adam Dunn in the second. But the only other good hitters taken during Bowden's tenure were Aaron Boone in 1994 and Joey Votto in 2002.
So what was Bowden's great success in Cincinnati? He was good at a lot of the little things, but the big things seemed to evade him. He was better at forming a bullpen than a starting rotation, and he was better at trading for short-term lineup solutions rather than signing a legitimate building block.
Thus, when Bowden got the job as GM of the Washington Nationals, it was a surprise to many. Here was somebody whose biggest problem was building talent from the bottom-up, and yet that's exactly what he was asked to do with the Washington franchise.
The Montreal franchise came to Washington with the understanding that they had to have a new ballpark; outdated RFK Stadium would only be the temporary home for the Nationals. But the city council balked at the amount of public financing required to build a new stadium. Before any deal was struck, they wanted assurances that the Nationals would commit a significant amount of private money to the project.
This may not sound like a big setback. But Bud Selig wasn't used to this. After the Baltimore Orioles opened Camden Yards in 1992, Selig helped seal the deal for eighteen new ballparks across the nation, almost all of them financed with huge amounts of public money. The MLB not only asked that the taxpayers swallow a chunk of the new ballpark's cost, but also that the team be given numerous tax breaks and incentives. In the past, city leaders had given him all of this this and thanked him for it.
But now there was a lot of new research, most notably by Andrew Zimbalist, stating that the financial return a city gets from a major league ballpark doesn't come close to making up for the cost. Things were changing, and city councils were no longer bowing down before baseball. Not only that, but the sport was awash in new money and attendance was booming. Any claims that the owners were heading for the poorhouse were dubious at best.
This meant that the talks stalled, with Opening Day 2005 fast approaching. Should they go ahead and plan for baseball in DC? Or should they start coming up with an emergency backup plan? With all the practical issues involved in moving a major league franchise, any delays were bad news. In fact, the MLB shut down the Nationals' office (which was housed in a trailer) for a short while during the offseason, prompting fears that the deal wouldn't come off. Eventually, the city council caved, and the MLB proceeded to throw together a team as quickly as possible.
Jim Bowden didn't have much at his disposal. His bosses, the MLB, had other things on their mind besides the on-field quality of the team. But Bowden was allowed some leeway (and money) to make a splash and improve things.
Well, he did make a splash at least. He signed veteran Vinny Castilla to play third base, giving him $6 million over two years. But Bowden didn't look closely enough at Castilla's numbers. In 2004, Vinny hit .271 with 35 HR and 131 RBI. Sound good? It is good . . . unless you're at Coors Field, which turns decent hitters into MVPs. Forced to hit much closer to sea level, Castilla lost 23 HR in 2005 (finishing with just 12) and saw his RBI total cut in half. His SLG dropped by 132 points. In the end, he was just a decent third baseman.
But that wasn't the worst move Bowden made. He signed shortstop Cristian Guzman to a 4-year, $16 million deal. Guzman was a speedy guy who none the less got caught stealing far too much. Not only that, but his offense was so terrible. The year before the deal was signed, Guzman hit .274 with a dreadful .309 on-base percentage (OBP) and .384 slugging percentage (SLG). Baseball observers everywhere were mystified; why would Bowden give so many years to a guy whose skills weren't even really in demand? Was this really the best way to get things started in a new city?
Despite Bowden's free agent follies, the Nats' first season in Washington was a qualified success. They improved to an 81-81 record in a strong NL East and generated a lot of excitement. The offense was anchored by Jose Guillen, who became the first in a long line of ex-Reds that Bowden brought with him to DC. The lineup benefited from a full, healthy season by Nick Johnson and another strong year from center fielder Brad Wilkerson.
The rotation was led by veterans Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza. Neither man had a great year, but they were durable and above-average, qualities Bowden had rarely seen in Cincinnati. The breakout star of the pitching staff, though, was closer Chad Cordero. Cordero saved 47 games and finished with a 1.82 ERA. The Nats also had good support in the bullpen from young hurlers Luis Ayala, Jon Rauch and Gary Majewski.
Bowden set out to build upon the team's decent showing in 2005, and he began by making a big splash on the trade market. He sent outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge, along with pitching prospect Armando Galarraga, to the Texas Rangers for slugger Alfonso Soriano. It was a bold move with serious repercussions for the franchise, not all of them good.
The first problem was that the Nationals wanted Soriano to move to left field. Soriano was a second baseman for the Rangers, although he was a serious defensive liability. Plus, the Nats already had a second baseman in Jose Vidro, and they wanted Soriano's good speed and power put to use patrolling the outfield. Soriano refused. Bowden didn't have long to savor the trade before Soriano insisted that he would not move to the outfield. This was an embarrassment for the team, especially since the dispute arose after they'd already traded for him; they couldn't very well send him back. In the end, though, Soriano caved and moved to left field. He did all right while learning on the job, even if he was in the habit of turning a simply fly ball into an adventure.
The more serious question was whether or not the trade was worth it. Soriano was a much bigger star than Brad Wilkerson, the man he was replacing, but there was some question as to whether he was actually a better player. Wilkerson didn't have Soriano's power, but he also didn't have Soriano's maddening all-or-nothing swing, a swing that racked up 125 strikeouts and a .309 OBP for Texas in 2005. Wilkerson's OBP was .351, and he had swatted 32 homers in 2004. Soriano's edge in power was muted by playing in hitter-friendly Ameriquest Field in Texas, whereas Wilkerson slaved away in the wide-open confines of Olympic Stadium and RFK Stadium.
The good news for Bowden was that it all worked out in his favor. Despite moving to a pitcher's park, Soriano had a career year, hitting .277 with 46 HR and 41 stolen bases. Wilkerson, on the other hand, saw his power and his batting average disappear. He lost his job as an everyday player and has yet to regain it.
With Soriano a true success story, Bowden faced a decision critical to the future of the franchise. The Nationals weren't going anywhere in 2006; they finished dead last in the NL East with a 71-91 record. With Soriano due to become a free agent after the season, Bowden and his staff had a choice to make: trade Soriano while they could, or re-sign him to a contract extension. Given the state of the Nats' finances, and considering the money Soriano would command on the open market, the latter option was basically off the table. So the Nats had to trade Soriano. Or so it seemed.
What made it difficult for Bowden was that everybody knew that he had to trade Soriano. This gave him very little leverage in negotiations with potential suitors. Bowden kept insisting that he did not have to trade Soriano, remaining optimistic about the prospect of re-signing him. The other owners didn't budge; they knew he must be bluffing. As it turned out, though, he wasn't bluffing at all. He stayed in control of the situation and didn't temper his trade demands. And as a result, he was stuck with Soriano.
Bowden won a tactical victory by staring down his fellow owners, but unfortunately, it was a major strategic blunder. Bowden seemed to put saving face with the other owners above the best interests of the team. He wouldn't admit that he really did have to trade Soriano, whether he liked it or not. And his overtures about re-signing his star player to a contract extension were just so much talk. The Cubs left all other bidders in the dust when they gave the 30-year-old Soriano a mammoth eight-year, $136 million contract.
Still, the news wasn't all bad on the trading front. In mid-2006, Bowden called up his former team and made a deal that got him two key Reds for a relative pittance. On July 13, the Nationals got outfielder Austin Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez from Cincinnati. Both of them were starters, and both were just 26 years old. Kearns was hitting .274 with 16 HR so far on the season, and Lopez was hitting .268 with 23 steals. Neither man was a superstar, but both were significant upgrades over what the Nationals had.
In return, the Reds sent over the following: two good young relievers in Gary Majewski and Bill Bray; shortstop Royce Clayton, who wasn't as good as Lopez and was also significantly older; utility infielder Brendan Harris and pitching prospect Daryl Thompson. All told, Bowden gave up two relief pitchers and some warm bodies to get a good starting outfielder and a decent starting shortstop. It was a terrifically unbalanced trade. Bowden's reputation was as a scavenger, but he was also smart enough to know a sucker deal when he saw one.
Even considering the Kearns/Lopez trade, the best thing to happen to the franchise in 2006 was when it graduated its top prospect (some would say its only prospect) to the majors. Ryan Zimmerman was a star third baseman out of the University of Virginia that the Nats had taken in 2005 with their first pick of the draft. He was seen as a polished player with a short path to the big leagues, but he did even better than that when he made it to the majors just a few months after he was drafted. He made his full-season debut in 2006 and looked as good as promised. Not only was he a fine defensive third baseman, he hit .287 with 20 HR and 61 walks while playing in all but five of the team's games. The combination of solid defense and broad set of hitting skills made him the de facto face of the franchise.
Zimmerman anchored an offense that ranked 11th of 16 NL teams in runs scored. Considering their pitcher-friendly ballpark, it wasn't a bad job. In fact, by the OPS+ measure (which takes the park effect into account), the Nats had the sixth-best offense in the NL.
So how did the team finish 71-91? It was thanks to the worst pitching staff in the whole league. The Nationals allowed more runs than any other NL team, which is even worse when you consider how much their park helped suppress run totals. Five Washington pitchers started more than 10 games, and the lowest ERA among them all was Mike O'Connor's mark of 4.80. Not only did the Nats not have any good starters — they didn't even have an average starting pitcher. Old hands Tony Armas and Livan Hernandez were joined by failed reclamation projects Ramon Ortiz, Pedro Astacio, Billy Traber, Jay Bergmann and Ryan Drese, among others. The only thing saving the team from complete catastrophe was a strong bullpen led once again by Chad Cordero.
But with Zimmerman leading the way forward, Bowden set about putting the team on the winning path again in 2007. When first baseman Nick Johnson went down with an injury, Bowden took a chance on former Red Dmitri Young. Young's star had fallen tremendously after he moved to Detroit, where his production went down and his weight went up. He left the team under a cloud, and it looked like he was no longer an asset offensively. Young proved them all wrong, roaring back with a .320 average, a .378 on-base percentage (OBP) and a .491 slugging percentage (SLG) in '07.
Bowden wasn't done scavenging; he picked up Wily Mo Pena from the Red Sox, hoping that the powerful youngster would finally meet his potential. Pena did well as a part-timer in 2007, but spent 2008 at the Mendoza line, hitting .205 with just two home runs. Bowden got Robert Fick to give the team some versatility, but that's not really an asset when you hit .234. Ryan Langerhans came to town after the Braves gave up on him, only to show the Nats fans why when he hit .198 in 103 games.
Bowden faced the same problem in Washington that he had in Cincinnati. Picking up spare parts is great if you're adding supporting players to a solid core, but you can't build a lineup from scratch by filling your roster with long-shots like Fick and Langerhans.
And what did Bowden do to fix the league's worst pitching staff? Nothing, really. He even gave up on scavenging and turned things over to the makeshift pitching staff held together by pitching coach Randy St. Claire and a roll of scotch tape. In 2007, only three pitchers on the whole team logged more than 100 innings, and the Nats had no less than ten pitchers start at least five games. If you think it's hard to find ten good starting pitchers, then you're absolutely right; the Nats were scraping the bottom of the barrel with the likes of Jerome Williams and Jason Simontacchi.
The bullpen was, as usual, good but not great. Bowden started coming under more and more pressure to trade bullpen stalwarts Cordero and Rauch before they reached free agency. Relievers don't generally warrant the big raises they get in arbitration, and unless you've got Joe Nathan on your hands, it's not wise for a low-payroll team to invest a great amount in a reliever. But even as the offers came in, Bowden sat silent.
The team finished with only a moderate improvement over 2006, at 73-89. The free-falling Florida Marlins finished below them, marking the first time Washington finished out of the NL East cellar since 2003. In the off-season, Bowden was uncharacteristically silent. He may have been stifled by the team's $54 million payroll, the league's lowest save for the lowly Pirates and Marlins. It's hard to say.
He did do a little scavenging, picking up two talented outfielders in Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. Milledge had worn out his welcome with the Mets but was still a solid prospect. Bowden had to give up Ryan Church to get him, but he also got the Mets to swallow Brian Schneider's inflated salary.
Dukes was a far different story. He possessed a tremendous amount of potential as a baseball player, but his misadventures off the field had long soured him with the Tampa Bay brass. The phrase "attitude problem" does not begin to describe Elijah Dukes; his violent and aggressive behavior has gotten him in trouble with both league officials and law enforcement. Still, a guy like that is crying out for a change of scenery, and Bowden wasn't going to get anyone nearly as young, cheap and talented as this anywhere else. So the Rays sent him to Washington for a low-level prospect.
Other than that, it was much the same Nationals team as in years past, which wasn't such good news. Bowden made two ill-advised decisions when he rewarded scavenged players Dmitri Young and Ron Belliard with contract extensions. He also picked up Aaron Boone, Paul Lo Duca, and Johnny Estrada off the scrap heap, with very little to show for it.
The good news was that the Nationals were finally moving into a new ballpark, after several public standoffs between the interested parties. Nationals Park opened for the 2008 season, and the Washington brass sat back and waited for the huge attendance boost that accompanies the opening of the new park.
The big boost never came. The Nats weren't even able to sell out the first series of the season, although they did manage to fill the park for Opening Day. That set the standard for the rest of the year, as the team fell drastically short of expectations. Attendance rose by 19% in 2008, pushing the team up from 14th place in NL attendance to just 13th. To put that in perspective, the Cincinnati Reds got a 27% boost in attendance from their new park in 2003, and the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates saw a huge 41% increase when they moved into PNC Park in 2001.
The change in economy certainly played a part in the Nats' troubles, especially when the bottom fell out of both the stock market and the team's win-loss record toward the end of the year. Washington finished at 59-102, the worst record in the National League and the worst mark for the franchise since the 1976 Expos went 55-107.
It was anything but a surprise. For one thing, Bowden's scavenging failed to stop the team's bleeding. But more troubling was the deterioration of the lineup's true assets. Since his arrival in Washington, Austin Kearns' offense had pulled a Houdini-esque disappearing act. His batting average dropped from .266 to .217 in 2008, and his home runs dropped from 16 to 7.
As if that weren't bad enough, Ryan "Face of the Franchise" Zimmerman had seen his offense fall off in 2007 and again in 2008. The team was hopeful that his numbers would perk up when they moved out of cavernous RFK Stadium, but it didn't happen. Zimmerman finished 2008 with a fairly empty .283 average, supported by just 14 HR and 31 walks. That's not bad, but it was seen as a major letdown from a player who'd been drawing comparisons to Brooks Robinson just three years earlier.
The pitching staff was disappointing as usual. Bowden's decision to keep Chad Cordero blew up in his face when the closer, in his last year before free agency, suffered a season-ending injury, thereby negating any trade value he had.
If that weren't bad enough, Bowden made a major PR mistake when he announced in the middle of July that the team would be letting Cordero go at the end of the season. Cordero was stunned, because this announcement came on a radio show. So not only did Bowden give Cordero the heave-ho in embarrassing fashion, he showed his hand early and basically ruined any chance of trading or re-signing the hurler. It was also a not-so-subtle message to the fans that Bowden had already given up on 2008 and was already deciding who to cut before 2009. Moves such as this aren't very productive for a team that already has problems with attendance and fan approval.
So it was no surprise to see Bowden go. The only real surprise was that it wasn't due to his poor performance as GM, but rather due to the ongoing federal investigation. It was a similar tale that led to his departure from Cincinnati: short-term patches for a shoddy offense and the total neglect of a woeful pitching staff. The only difference was that in Cincinnati, Bowden inherited a ballclub with a solid core, so that the team's decline was steadier and more drawn out. He didn't have that luxury in Washington, so his mistakes were more immediate and more dramatic.
Bowden does have his supporters, and it can never be said that his performance was all bad. He made canny trades, nabbing a big star in Alfonso Soriano and two useful regulars in Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez. He successfully picked up Dmitri Young, Elijah Dukes, and Lastings Milledge off of the scrap heap without giving up much at all.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention that Bowden got very little help from ownership. The change in ownership from the MLB to the Lerner group in 2006 gave the franchise a solid footing, but it didn't make the big difference fans were hoping for. Granted, throwing more money at the problem wouldn't have changed everything, but no one can build a contender by scavenging alone. By the time the team did chase a big fish — Mark Teixeira in the 2008-09 off-season — it no longer made sense to commit a huge chunk of the team's payroll to any one player.
So this is what remains of the MLB's quest to put baseball back in the nation's capital. A franchise shift pulled off at the last minute, an ownership group finally settled upon after years of waiting, and a ballpark born out of a contentious relationship with the city and its inhabitants.
Selig has the Nationals right where he wanted them, but you have to wonder if his enthusiasm hasn't mellowed in the years since. The Nats are still run on a shoestring, unable or unwilling to pursue free agents, draft aggressively or simply assemble some sort of plan to bring the franchise out of the depths. Not only that, but the cash-cow ballpark hasn't resulted in the flow of fans (and cash) that was anticipated.
So the Washington Nationals' story doesn't have that heartwarming, Frank Capra-ish quality. But it's early yet. It won't be easy, but the Nats still has a chance to dust themselves off and start over with a new sense of opportunity.
It's what Jimmy Stewart would have done.