Say what you want about the Bowden regime, we can all agree he did ok in the first round in 2005. The Face of the Franchise, Ryan Zimmerman. We love Zimmy. Even if he turns out to be not quite the Mike Schmidt Bowden bloviated about on draft day, Zimmerman is undoubtedly our most precious commodity, the one player everyone agrees will be a key cog on the First Great Nationals Team.
He's also an asset who should have been handled with the utmost caution and care, with the long term good of the team absolutely paramount.
Unfortunately, if you're looking for patience, long-term thinking, caution, and prudence from a GM, there are few worse choices than the notoriously hyperactive, short-term thinking Jim Bowden. And in Zimmy's case, it could cost us the best years of his career (or, as I say in the title, at least make them a lot more expensive).
First, a little background on how MLB player salaries work. After a player is drafted and signs, he doesn't become a free agent until he's played for 6 years. For the first three years, virtually all players get the league minimum, no matter what they do (unless the team decides to negotiate something long term, which is rare and reserved for budding superstars). After three years, players become arbitration-eligible, meaning that if the player and the team can't agree on a salary, they go to a judge to resolve the dispute, and the judge is a lot more generous than owners in those first three years. Then there's a funny thing called the "Super Two" exception, which has nothing to do with what happens when Da Meat clogs the clubhouse toilet. Super-2s have more than 2 but less than 3 years of experience, but essentially get credit for a full third year if they are among the top 17% in playing time for players who have been in the league the same amount of time (usually about 130-140 days). In other words, if the team doesn't call the player up until around the end of May, the team gets another full season of control.
In practical terms, what this means is that players get the league minimum for their first three years, around $400k. Then in their fourth year they get a pretty big bump, depending on how good they are, into the $3-5m range for a typical starter. Then, in their seventh year, they are free to play the market and demand whatever they can get. If you are Ryan Zimmerman, barring injury, it'll be a lot.
This is a system that puts a major premium on developing a steady stream of younger good players so you can have a core of cheap, good players to build around. You can always buy a free agent here or there if you have an owner willing to take on more salary, but realistically every team needs a core of young, cheap players to win.
That's not just because owners are cheap. One of the dirty secrets of the free agent market is most guys don't qualify till they are at least 28-29 years old. Most players at that age are beginning to decline. The really good free agents demand long-term deals of 4-7 years or more. So if you're relying on free agency, you're too often looking at a lot of expensive junk like Paul LoDuca or paying top dollar for the last years of a formerly great player. Even if money is no object, it's really hard to build a consistent winner exclusively with free agents. The Yankees tried, and now they're are now back to player development.
This is a system that also creates a somewhat perverse incentive to leave guys in the minors longer than they might really need it. If you are a roto player who drafted Evan Longoria or Jay Bruce and are wondering why the heck they didn't start on Opening Day, here's your answer. If these teams leave the player in the minors long enough so that they aren't with the big league team for the 130-140-ish days needed to qualify for Super-2, they get another year of "team control" on the back end.
And remember, regardless of a player's age, you only get the six years of team control. So in the case of a blue-chip player, if you use one of those years when the guy is 20 or 21 and still raw, then you lose him when he's turning 26-27 and becoming a star. You are in essence trading a year of mediocre performance for a year of great performance later.
So that brings us back to Zimmerman. In September of 2005, when the Nationals were still mathematically alive in the standings, but on life support on the field, especially on offense, Bowden called up Zimmerman. I remember at the time I was really excited. "Wow--this kid must be really special to come up this fast. That's really unusual." Little did I know, not at the time being up to speed on all this, that the reason it's unusual is because it's usually pretty stupid.
Now, if you're in contention and the kid's going to help you win the WS, it's not stupid at all. But you have to really take a hard look at your team and think about the trade-offs. You have to consider that if the player sticks, he's going to be arb eligible (and a free agent) a year sooner.
The alternative is to do what the Brewers did with Ryan Braun the following year, or what the Reds and Rays did with Bruce and Longoria this year--call them up just late enough in the year to be disqualified for Super-2 qualification and push their arb eligibility back a full year.
Since Zimmy got the call-up, one would assume that Bowden's judgment was that we were in range of the playoffs, that Zimmerman could be a difference-maker, and it was worth speeding up the clock to free agency to get him up. (Of course if he hadn't stuck and we had left him in the minors most of the next year, then the arbitration eligibility would have been pushed back again for a year. But by calling him up he essentially decided that we would play all of the meaningful part of 2006 without him or else move up his arb clock by a year.)
One problem: It was kind of ridiculous at that point to think that Zimmerman was going to turn the Nationals around. Besides the fact that he was only 20, when he came up on September 1, they were 6 games out and had lost 9 of their last 15. Our offense had completely cratered. Barring a total collapse by all our competitors (and remember, all 4 other teams in the East were right there in the hunt) and a very, very unlikely late offensive outpouring by guys like Preston Wilson, Cristian Guzman, and Marlon Byrd... it just wasn't going to happen. Also, don't forget, since we'd gifted away useful starting pitchers like Ohka, Vargas, and Downs, we were basically getting by that fall with a 3-man rotation of Patterson, Livo, and Loaiza and filling in the rest with junk. At that point, we had really no chance.
Oh and there was one other teeny little problem: Frank wouldn't play him. Zimmerman came up 9/1, and didn't become a full-time starter till 9/22, when they were mathematically eliminated. He started 13 games total. Maybe Bowden and Frank disagreed about Zimmerman's readiness (and he hit .397 that fall, so it would appear he was ready to at least do better than Castilla), but they should have discussed that in advance. If Bowden didn't have the pull in the organization to force it on Frank, then calling him up to sit is the GM-equivalent of stomping your feet like a baby.
But really, it would appear that Bowden didn't even consider the effect of the call-up on the long-term interests of the team. Who cares? He probably wasn't going to be here. Screw the Nationals and their 2012 fans and their 2012 owners. That's essentially what he said.
But, you might be thinking, Zimmy was great in 2006. We would have wanted him to start on Opening Day anyway. Well, maybe. But for a bad team going nowhere, probably not. You gotta prioritize the long term. Would you rather help a terrible team win a few additional games in April and May, or would you rather have a cheap superstar on a potentially championship-level team with money freed up to sign another key veteran?
Zimmerman's WARP number (wins above replacement player, or the estimated number of wins a player is worth vs. a typical scrub, according to the sabermatricians at Baseball Prospectus) in 2006 was 8, which is a pretty high number, but it tells you that letting him work in the minors for April and May probably only cost you 2 wins or so. But really it would have cost less than that because Zimmerman wasn't all that special till he heated up later, hitting a just-ok .242-.324-.411 in April that year.
OK, you say, maybe it's a little imprudent, but this doesn't seem like that big of a deal--so the Lerners have to pay him like a FA one year earlier. It's not my money, and they're such cheapskates they probably would just pocket the money anyway.
Well, it's actually worse than that. When you have a great young player like this, it's usually in the interests of the team to sign him to a long-term deal relatively early on, because you can get them to sign for money that will be a bargain compared to what he gets on the open market. The player's incentive is security. They're set for life and don't have to worry about injuries or whatever. Hanley, Tulo, Braun, etc.--there has been an increasing trend of teams signing their young stars to long-term deals before they get to arbitration. The key though is that you have to do it pretty early. The closer the player gets to arbitration and free agency, the less incentive they have to sign long-term.
As Zimmy himself said: "The way I look at it is, if you're going to do one of those deals (a Braun/Tulo-type long-term deal), you either need to do it very early on [in your career], or wait until you're close enough [to salary arbitration], so the leverage starts to swing to your side." Pretty savvy kid. But it's pretty scary when your 22-year-old 3B shows more contract savvy than your GM.
Bowden's hands were tied on long-term contract negotiations when he didn't have an owner, and in his defense he was without an owner longer than most people expected, but when you are dealing with a situation this fluid and a player this important to the long-term interests of the team, you absolutely must err on the side of caution. Even with the delays in the sale of the team, if Bowden had waited to bring him up till May, 2006, Zimmerman would have been still three full seasons away from arbitration when the Lerners bought the team, and we would have had a much, much better chance of signing him to a long-term deal in that first off-season with the new owners in place.
Now, assuming he keeps playing well, Zimmerman's in the catbird seat. We're either going to have to pay far more than we should have had to, or you can get ready to watch your favorite National play in Boston, Anaheim, or somewhere else.
I can anticipate there will be two objections here. First, people will say, "Why are you so concerned about helping save Ted Lerner money? Who cares? If the kid's ready to play, he should play. Then when he's an FA, you pay the man his money. If the owner's a cheap skate, then 'boo, cheapskate owner!'"
To me, this is not a grown-up position. Owners buy baseball teams for a lot of reasons, but one reason is to make money. Maybe you think capitalists are all greedy bastards, but MLB is a capitalist venture. Baseball teams aren't public resources owned in the public trust like national parks. If you want to root for a team that isn't run as a profit-making venture, there's a Cuban national team.
I'm making fun, but really it's just not realistic to expect owners to just spend unlimited money or dumb money. If I was an owner, I would want to win, but also ideally I would want to win while also not spending much money. Just like if I was a Hollywood producer, I'd want a blockbuster movie that wins Academy Awards, but even better would be if I could do that with a small budget like Juno. That's not the fans' perspective, but it is the owner's. Sure, there's a point at which owners are such cheapskates they are hurting the value of their own product by putting a total loser on the field, but you can't expect them to just act like money doesn't matter.
Given that, every team (except maybe the Yankees) has a budget of some kind. You can fault the Lerners (and I would agree) for being too tight, given that the payroll is still just ~$55m. But regardless of what the budget is, if you spend stupid money, then 1. you won't have the money available for better moves later, and 2. the GM loses credibility in the organization when the time comes to make the case for smart spending. Part of the GM's job is to massage the owner and convince him/her to spend when the GM wants to spend. I'm an owner and I think my GM doesn't care whether he's wasting my money or not, then I'm not going to be very open to requests to raise payroll.
The second point people will make is, as I raised before, to excuse Bowden is because he didn't have an owner and no one expected him to be around past that season. So of course he wanted to live for the now, and if he was winning, he would have a better chance of keeping his job. Can't fault him for that, right?
Well, yes I can. Setting aside the implicit assumption that the new owners will be more likely to reward short-term thinking and mismanagement than patience and planning, the job of a caretaker is to be careful. No one knew when Bowden would have an owner, but it was pretty clear to everyone by September 2005 that it was a bumpy, unpredictable road. Given the importance of Zimmerman for the long-term, it was absolutely imperative that he hedge his bets and not start the arb clock without an owner in place.
Bottom line, if he knowingly made decisions to screw the future GM, owner and Nats fans for his own short-term self-interest or amusement or whatever, then that's a more unforgivable sin than any honest error in judgment or failed strategy. Personally, I think it's more generous to him to assume he just didn't think about it at all.