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
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
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
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
Jeter made more than $20
Orlando Cabrera made $10
million, as did Edgar Renteria.
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
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
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
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
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
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
acquired him for a bag of non-magical beans as an NRI, and Young
rewarded that faith with a
Player of the Year season.
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
like a terrible insurance policy.
Young was not the epitome of health, but there have been far worse
handed out before and since, and for far greater money and for far
yet those GMs haven't been raked over the coals the way Bowden
has. And no one within the organization will say anything to
positive impact that Young has had on previously troubled players like
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
one thinks that their teams were eager to get rid of a couple of
Bowden was the one who recognized the potential and took a chance that
ecause of his foresight, the Nats
obtained what are now considered two of
the best young outfielders in NL without having to surrender large
cash or top prospects to get them.
is that a bad thing?
Isn't that the
definition of what a good GM is supposed to do?
he obtained pitcher Scott Olsen for
practically nothing under similar circumstances.
fact, many GMs didn't even consider the possibility that Olsen
would be available. Yet there he is in a Nats uni
Second baseman Anderson Hernandez looks like another solid player
who was under-appreciated until Bowden got him for pennies on the
speaking of getting something for practically nothing, when are his
critics going to start giving him credit for signing retreads like
Estaban Loaiza, Hector
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
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.
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
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
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
that the starters were never healthy. A
healthy Ryan Zimmerman, Jesus Flores, Johnson and Dukes make the Nats a
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
a wave of solid major league players beginning this year. Players
like John Lannan, Shairon Martis, Jordan Zimmerman, Chris Marrero, Michael Burgess, Ross
and Collin Balester will be contributing to the Nationals for the next
understand Bowden is not the most likeable guy but to suggest that he
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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