No More Kicking
March 1, 2009

I am not really sure why so many have given Jim Bowden so much grief during his tenure as Nationals' GM.  Regardless, they won't have him to kick around any more because today he resigned. It seems most of his critics are the people who reduce baseball down to nothing but numbers but I would counter that very few things in life can be reduced to numbers, especially where human behavior is concerned and that one has to appreciate the context in order to gain a measure of a thing's full value.  So let's look at the context of Jim Bowden's tenure.

His first big "sin" was signing Cristian Guzman to a 4-year, $16 million contract four years ago. The first year of the deal Guzman struggled, whether it was due to the change in leagues, the pressure to live up to a new contract or just bad mojo... whatever it was he was pretty bad until September of that season when his bat finally lived up to expectation.  Some might even be so bold as to suggest that a batting line of .325/.369/.481 was very good.  Then he missed all of 2006 and a large portion of 2007 with injuries.  When he finally got healthy in late 2007, he was a very solid again, both offensively and defensively and continued that through 2008.  In fact, if you compare his OPS last year (.786), he was as good or better with the stick than Jimmy Rollins (.786), Derek Jeter (.771), Miguel Tejada (.729), Orlando Cabrera (.705) and Edgar Renteria (.699).  Tejada made $14+ million last year, which is almost as much as Guzman's entire 4-year contract.  Jeter made more than $20 million.  Orlando Cabrera made $10 million, as did Edgar Renteria.  Jimmy Rollins made $8 million.  So how exactly is Guzman's contract bad?  He had no history of injuries before the contract - he had averaged better than 550 at bats per season before he arrived - so it's not as if Bowden was taking a big gamble on an injury-plagued player by signing him for 4 years.  Guzman's injuries would fall under the "unpredictable" category the same way Tejada's did in Baltimore.  As long as Guzzy was healthy, it looks to me like Bowden got him for half his market value.

The next big "sin" was trading for Austin Kearns.  Again, who predicted his production would tumble so dramatically?  Before he came to Washington, he was a fairly productive outfielder.  In fact, he was a darling of the statistical elite who always gave him a break whenever he failed to live up to expectation.  Even when he was in the minors their story was that he was the equal or maybe better than Adam Dunn.  More importantly, after the deal that brought Kearns and Felipe Lopez to Washington, it was almost universally agreed by the media and the stat heads - and how often does that ever happen? - that Bowden had gotten a steal from the Reds for the paltry sum of a few relievers.  But it's Bowden's fault that Kearns' production disappeared?

Why haven't the Nationals become more of a threat to win the NL East?  I would start with the circumstances that Bowden was hired into.  He inherited an organization that had been gutted by trades made by previous GM, Omar Minaya, in an ill-concieved effort to make the playoffs.  Not all these deals were made during the push to make the playoffs, but from 2001 to 2004 Minaya traded away Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Milton Bradley and Orlando Cabrera.  Does nobody think the Nationals would have been in a much better starting position had they retained those players?  If we have to demand so much of Bowden, how about a similar bar of expectation for Minaya to surpass?  Minaya's Mets have spent two or three times as much money than the Nats were allowed, yet all they have to show for it is one NL East title and two spectacular September meltdowns that left them in the same position the Nats were in: outside the playoffs.  When Bowden was first hired he had to answer to 29 other owners for any deal or signing.  How tough is that when you are trying to negotiate?  "Yeah, that trade sounds good - let me call each of my 29 bosses to make sure it's ok."  And given the enormous signing bonuses that first round selections are getting in the draft these days, it's a pretty decent accomplishment that Bowden was able to get the Nationals' first ever draft pick Ryan Zimmerman under contract as efficiently as he did. 

Not only did he have to deal with unique constraints for building a team, that team had to deal with a 40-year old facility and compete against teams that had state of the art facilities.  That was one of the biggest problems the Nats had from 2005-2007: keeping the players healthy.  As it turned out, part of the problem was the medical staff but the more complex a thing is - say, for example, a major league team with 25 moving parts with a dozen or so influences on how they perform at any given time - the harder it is to isolate the variables and the less meaningful it is to do so.  Last season it became clear the Nats needed a new direction with the staff and Bowden made the change as soon as the postseason concluded.  The change wasn't affected as soon as it could have been as Bowden has proved to be a pretty loyal guy to his people.  But when change was required, he made it. 

So what else?  He gets pilloried for re-signing Dmitri Young for 2 years. Bowden first acquired him for a bag of non-magical beans as an NRI, and Young rewarded that faith with a Comeback Player of the Year season.  Nick Johnson was injured and there was no assurance that he would be healthy.  So $5 million a year for a first baseman who posted a .869 OPS in the toughest pitcher's park in the majors did not look like a terrible insurance policy.  True, Young was not the epitome of health, but there have been far worse contracts handed out before and since, and for far greater money and for far longer terms, yet those GMs haven't been raked over the coals the way Bowden has.  And no one within the organization will say anything to diminish the positive impact that Young has had on previously troubled players like Elijah Dukes.

And what about Dukes?  And Lastings Milledge?  Bowden has probably had an unhealthy affinity for athletic toolsy players and that hasn't always worked out.  But if given a choice between physical tools or statistical polish in the minor leagues, I think most GMs will take tools, too.  And rightly so.  Talent is what seperates starters from bench players. 

In Milledge and Dukes, regardless of what one thinks about their behavior before they came to the Nationals or whether one thinks that their teams were eager to get rid of a couple of malcontents, Bowden was the one who recognized the potential and took a chance that they would mature.  Because of his foresight, the Nats obtained what are now considered two of the best young outfielders in NL without having to surrender large amounts of cash or top prospects to get them.  How is that a bad thing?  Isn't that the definition of what a good GM is supposed to do?  Likewise, he obtained pitcher Scott Olsen for practically nothing under similar circumstances.  In fact, many GMs didn't even consider the possibility that Olsen would be available.  Yet there he is in a Nats uni now.   Second baseman Anderson Hernandez looks like another solid player who was under-appreciated until Bowden got him for pennies on the dollar. 

And speaking of getting something for practically nothing, when are his critics going to start giving him credit for signing retreads like Estaban Loaiza, Hector Carrasco and Odalis Perez for pennies, and then getting solid, if not very good seasons out of them?  In the case of the first two, the Nats reaped the addition bonus of compensation draft picks when they signed as free agents elsewhere the following season.  Bowden picked up current closer Joel Hanrahan, who has yet to reach his full potential, as a minor league free agent.  So as long as everyone is enjoying the dead horse-beating contest, isn't this what good GM's do?  Find diamonds in the rough and/or polish dingy ones for resale? Given Randy St. Clair's success as a pitching coach - and he would be up there with Dave Duncan, Johnny Podres, and Mike Maddux as the best pitching coaches that baseball has seen over the last 25 years -  it would not be surprising to see newly-signed Daniel Cabrera follow the aforementioned hurlers' success. 

Bowden can't even get a kudo when he makes an obviously great move.  He has been hammered by some for signing Adam Dunn for a contract that in any other year would be hailed as the steal of the winter.  But this year the critics suggest that the Nats are going to stink so why waste the money.  This one is beyond me.  First of all, they play professional baseball and the object is to win and most of the time that requires having better players than the other teams.  Even if one thinks the Nationals had none before this offseason, they had to start somewhere.  But the fact of the matter is that the Nats offense will be pretty good this year, especially because they signed Dunn.  Last year's run scoring troubles were due almost entirely to the fact that the starters were never healthy.  A healthy Ryan Zimmerman, Jesus Flores, Johnson and Dukes make the Nats a decent offense; adding Dunn made them a good offense.

And speaking of great moves, have we forgotten the deal that sent Brad Wilkerson, Termel Sledge and Armando Galarraga to Texas for Alfonso Soriano?  No, Soriano did not make the Nats contenders, but it would be hard to argue that the sum of those three players equalled the 46 homer/41 double/41 steal season the Nats got from Soriano.  His 40/40/40 season energized the fanbase in his pursuit of history even with the team out of contention.  And as with the pitchers who left via free agency, his departure via free agency yielded compensation picks in the draft.  Galarraga has begun what looks like a decent career as a starting pitcher in Detroit, but he's certainly no ace or star.  And Wilkerson and Sledge have been bench players since.  It should be added that it was not until he played in Washington that Soriano ever considered moving to the outfield, a move that turned out to be quite lucrative for him when he signed a huge long-term deal with the Cubs.

But perhaps the best of the great moves Bowden made was with the hiring of his scouting staff, including his probable successor, Mike Rizzo.  Rizzo is most notably famous for signing Frank Thomas and building the Arizona Diamondback farm system.  Even though they are not getting a lot of respect in this regard, under Bowden and Rizzo the Nationals have drafted and developed a very good farm system that will produce a wave of solid major league players beginning this year.  Players like John Lannan,
Shairon Martis, Jordan Zimmerman, Chris Marrero, Michael Burgess, Ross Detwiler and Collin Balester will be contributing to the Nationals for the next decade.

Look, I understand Bowden is not the most likeable guy but to suggest that he has been a terrible GM is just ignoring the facts.  He had some ups and downs just like any GM and this last set of downs with the skimming investigation and the Smiley Gonzalez fiasco were the back-breaking straws.  But if the Nats surprise this season with how competitve they are - as I expect they will - it won't be because the new GM turned things around.  It will be because Jim Bowden put the pieces in place.  Isn't that what a good GM is supposed to do?

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