This post, the first in what will be a 2-part series, attempts to answer this question. Were we in fact doomed to what looks like 5-6 years of terrible baseball from the get-go, or was it possible that with excellent roster management, drafting, and a commitment to rebuilding that Bowden could have built a winning team by now?
My goal isn't to nitpick every possible move with 20/20 hindsight or blame him for bad luck. The point is to really honestly look back and figure out how exactly did we get here, and was there a fair, reasonable set of better decisions Bowden could have made that would have made a website like this unnecessary? I'm interested in any and all substantive feedback on how well I pull this off.
My biggest challenge in doing this is that I spent most of the last four years as an unrepentant homer (believe it or not), blaming Bud Selig for all our woes. So it took me quite a bit of time, going back through the contemporaneous coverage to look at what happened through non-Red-colored glasses.
For now, we'll start by looking at the overall strategy and then the moves Bowden made in 2005. To try to stay as much as possible tethered to fairness and reality, I won't look at the drafts beyond the first two rounds, assuming (a bit generously I think) that you can't really expect the GM to personally scout deeper than that, and we'll concede that with a shoe-string scouting budget it would have been pretty hard to find gems beyond the top of the draft. We'll also assume the payroll is the same or less.
The links I use are mainly to Baseball-Reference.com (which doesn't require a password) and BaseballProspectus.com (which does). I would just give you all my password, but I think if I did that I'd be violating the subscription agreement, and I don't want to lose my access. But if you love baseball and buy your own subscription I don't think you'll be disappointed.
When I started picking through the wreckage, it became pretty clear that the most important thing Bowden messed up, especially in his first two years here, is that he did not to embrace a full-on rebuilding strategy starting in November 2004.
Top to bottom, DC inherited a franchise that had been wrecked completely by four years of MLB ownership, threats of contraction, shoe-string salaries and scouting budgets, etc. This is a team that for four-plus years was run by and for the benefit of its 29 opponents. We had no talent at all in the minors. Consider these four words: top prospect Mike Hinckley.
The major league team was evacuated too, with the likes of Vlad Guerrero, Grady Sizemore, Orlando Cabrera, Brandon Phillips, Jason Bay and more either traded away or allowed to leave without compensation by a team that really believed (or at least acted like it really believed) that there was nothing to live for beyond 2003.
Instead of committing to rebuilding, Bowden ran the team like we were putting together the final pieces of a championship run, dealing young players and draft picks for aging, declining veteran players. Explaining the senseless Guzman and Castilla signings (more on those to come) he said, "These two guys have been to the postseason and that's important, especially for this franchise that has a lot of players that haven't been to the postseason."
Whether he really believed the Nationals were on the cusp of postseason contention, needing just a little veteran leadership and shoring up on the left side, or whether he was just drawing attention to himself (as the most virulent anti-Bowden people say), the consequences for Nationals fans are the same.
Here, step by gory step, are the moves that we would have made (or, much more often, not made) had we followed the (smarter, in my view) strategy of rebuilding. I'm listing the things we should (not) have done differently in chronological order. Let's see where this takes us.
--Don't sign Vinny Castilla. Boy, that one was easy, and no possible risk of cherry-picking, since pretty much everyone around baseball said it was heinously stupid at the time. What was JimBo thinking? Vinny hits .271, 35 HR, and an NL-leading 131 RBI (80 at home, 51 on the road) in 2004 at 37 years old in Denver. All of MLB says, "nice little coda to a career, but he'll never do that again." JimBo says, "two years! $6.2 million!" Didn't he learn anything when he took Dante Bichette out of Colorado? The killer here from the long-term perspective isn't even the money or Castilla's one year of bad play--it's the 2nd round draft pick we had to get the Rockies as compensation, which, since the draft order that year was based on the 67-win Expos team of 2004, was the 4th pick in the round, of the 52nd overall.
--Don't sign Cristian Guzman. Another easy one, and not the slightest hint of hindsight revisionism. Four years and $16.8 mil to a guy who was already in decline both offensively and defensively as a result of shoulder and knee problems and whose slap-hitting style would suffer off turf? No thanks! And this time we give up a third-round pick as compensation, the 84th overall. Castilla and Guzman not only never would have gotten these contracts anywhere else, if Bowden had just waited a bit, they probably would have been non-tendered by their respective clubs, and at least then we could have kept the picks. Nationals fans, resist the urge to cheer yourself up about this deal because of Guzman's feel-good first half in 2008. The money, the pick, the bad play... this deal is triple-ugh.
--Don't trade Maicer Izturis (23 years old) and Juan Rivera (25) for Jose Guillen (29). No, Jose wasn't the disaster Cristian Guzman was. But why trade a younger, cheaper guy under team control for 4 more years (Rivera) to get basically the same production back from an older, more expensive player who would be free agent in 2? And then throw in a deMI to boot?
--Don't release Scott Downs. Then, he was a lefty 5th starter/long man out of the bullpen guy--someone we could have used in second half of '05, but no great shakes. Since then, Toronto has reinvented him as perhaps the best LOOGY in baseball. This year, he's been even more than that, holding righties to a .209 BA, 41 points better than he's doing vs. lefties, while posting a 1.31 ERA in 34.3 IP through Sunday. JimBo gave him his outright release to make room so we could overpay for the privilege of one year of old, bad, nice-guy juicer Gary Bennett (.221-.298-.271) to be Brian Schneider's caddy.
--Don't sign Esteban Loiaza for 1 year and $2.9 million. Clearly, in hindsight, this is one deal that worked out both short-term and the long term, so don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting for Bowden for doing it. Loiaza pitched really well in 2005, and turned into a compensatory pick, which became Colten Willems. But I can't honestly argue that I'd have signed Loiaza following my strategy. So in fairness to Bowden, I'll give up Loiaza and Willems.
--Don't trade Tomo Ohka for Junior Spivey. This was just pointless. Junior Spivey? This was trading younger, better and pitching just because you don't want to play Jamey Carroll for a month while Vidro's hurt. And even then the only way it makes sense is if you are the only person in MLB who still thought Spivey's 2002 might happen again. Ohka faded, so it hasn't come back to haunt us like it could have, but if he was still eating innings just above league-average now the way he was then, it would really gall. Bad move regardless.
--Don't trade Zach Day for Preston Wilson. Pointless, take 2. Remember how Wilson was going to give us a power bat for the home stretch? Who really believed that? Why did we think we were better with Church on the bench? Maybe JimBo thought he was getting Mookie. Zach Day stunk, so once again, he doesn't haunt us like some others will, but regardless when you're rebuilding you don't do younger pitching for older hitting, even if you do believe (foolishly, to be kind) that Wilson's numbers would survive the move from Coors to RFK.
OK let's pause here and consider how much better off the Nationals would have been if we had just done NOTHING for this first off season. We've cleared $12 million in 2005 payroll (we paid $2m of Wilson's $12.5m(!) salary). We have 2 more high-round draft picks in the draft. We have younger, cheaper players under team control and ready to contribute in Izturis, Harris, and Rivera. We didn't throw away Scott Downs. And here's the kicker: the 2005 Nationals are basically as good as you remember. You get similar production for Guillen with Juan Rivera and more PT for Ryan Church. Losing Loaiza's 217 innings hurts, but the innings we threw away in Ohka and Downs would have been pretty similar. Your Guzman and Castilla-less IF can't be worse with Izturis, Carroll, and Brendan Harris picking up the slack. Bottom line, this team (which based on RS and RA really deserved to be 77-85 anyway) would have been a bit worse, maybe a 72-ish win team. Kind of a bummer we wouldn't have been worse, actually, because this means we only go from the 15th pick in the '06 draft to the 8th.
This draft is primarily remembered for bringing us Ryan Zimmerman, which is appropriate, since we had to wait 110 picks to make another pick because of the twin blunders of Castilla and Guzman. We also got Justin Maxwell and a 10th round pick named John Lannan.
Let's assume we draft well. Not ridiculously well, like finding Mike Piazza in the 62nd round, but let's say we hit on our first round picks in the way good-drafting teams like the D'Backs, Rays, Red Sox, or Brewers have in recent years. Let's say we pick Chase Headley (Yunel Escobar, Kevin Slowey and Micah Owings were also drafted right around there too).
With the third-round pick we lost for Guzman, we could have taken someone like catcher Taylor Teagarden (other decent picks around there were RP Jensen Lewis, SP Josh Geer, or 1B Nick Weglarz--Lewis is the only one who's made the show so far).
This brings us to the end of Jim Bowden's disastrous first year as GM of the Washington Nationals. It's really remarkable if you scroll through all the moves Bowden made that first year, that almost without exception, we got older, more expensive, and less talented. We inherited a mess, but what assets we did have Bowden squandered a bunch of them, most unforgivably those high draft picks (we didn't even have to suffer through the 2004 season as Expos fans to get them!).
And now the sins of the father are being visited on the son. If you want to know why we're so bad now, why after 4 years of "patience" there's very little hope on the near horizon, look at the way Bowden in 2005 mortgaged our future to squeeze a handful of wins out of a bad team.
We'll continue this series shortly, picking up with the 2005-6 off -season.
- NOTE: I made quite a few changes to this post and the next part based on the feedback I got from numerous people that I thought was valuable. If you are looking at this again and saw the first version, you might be thinking, "wait, what happened to..." I'm sure I'm breaking all sorts of blogger rules of etiquette and professionalism, but I'm not a professional, and I thought it was more important to make it a better read for any future visitors and to clarify my own thinking.