I'm not sure why (ha ha), but it's been occasionally suggested that I did not give Jim Bowden enough credit for the good moves he made as Nationals GM. Today, now that Jim's time as Nationals GM finally has come to an end, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on Jim's best moves during his time in DC. Here's my "top ten" countdown:
10. Signing Dmitri Young
Forget for a moment the Dmitri Young of 2008. Think back to Dmitri Young the comeback player of the year in 2007, the guy who could "fall out of bed in the morning and hit." As spring training opened that year, Nick Johnson was rehabbing his horrible broken leg and would be out the whole season. That left a competition between Larry Broadway and Travis Lee for the starting first base job. Young had been waived by the Tigers in the midst of a World Series run and had primarily been used as a DH since 2003. But as a low-risk, medium-reward pick-up, it made sense. The way it paid off blew away anyone's highest hopes--Da Meat Hook delivered a .320 / .378 / .491 line, worth about 40 runs above replacement. According to UZR, he gave back 15 of those runs in the field, but that's still quite a coup, given the alternatives.
If Jim hadn't re-signed Young for two years and $10 million a year later, this move would probably rank higher, but the subsequent doubling-down on this bet canceled out a lot of the value of the initial move. But still, taken in isolation, this was a very nice move that gave us a lot of free talent value in 2007.
9. Trading Brian Schneider and Ryan Church for Lastings Milledge:
Two or three years from now, this move may rank as Jim's best, but for now I'll rank it here since it's still unclear what exactly we have in Lastings.
This is the kind of trade that Jim did far too few of, given the situation--useful veteran role players to a contender in exchange for a younger, improving player with upside. Milledge once upon a time was rumored as the key piece in a trade for Manny Ramirez. His stock has fallen a lot since then, as his strike zone command hasn't developed as well as some hoped, and his fielding hasn't matched the raw athletic tools scouts saw years ago. Still, Schneider was as replaceable as any Nationals starter, and although Church was always under-appreciated by Bowden (remember the day Mike Vento started in RFK while Church rotted in New Orleans... Oy), he is what he is: a #6 hitter on a contender with little or no upside. Milledge is a good bet to be at least as good as Church for longer and cheaper, with upside for much more.
8. Signing Tim Redding and Joel Hanrahan
Technically, two moves, but Redding and Hanrahan were both signed on November 6 (also Michael Restovich and Josh Wilson) to major-league deals. At the time, the Nationals 40-man roster was as wide and empty as the North Dakota prairie. With the flexibility to give major league deals to players who would have been offered minor league contracts (at best) from any other team, Jim was in prime position to show off his considerable dumpster-diving skills. Hanrahan was a hard-throwing former top prospect of the Dodgers' with a good fastball-slider combination but command problems that kept him from ever mastering AAA. Redding was four-time castoff, three seasons removed from his one and only above-replacement season in 2003. Jim threw an awful lot of spaghetti against the wall over the years, but these guys stuck. Redding gave us solid a 5th starter for two years (never mind we didn't have a 1, 2, 3, or 4--Redding was a really good 5!), and Hanrahan looks like at least a strong 7th inning guy for potentially years to come (he still has a lot to prove before he belongs as a closer for a good team).
7. Picking Jesus Flores in the 2006 rule 5 draft
Another good use of the gaping holes on the 40-man roster going into the 2007 season, Flores, rated in 2005 by Baseball America as the Mets' #9 prospect, had just hit 21 homers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League (high-A) at age 21. Omar Minaya assumed no one would think Flores was ready for a full season in the bigs, but he forgot to factor in that the Nationals had about a third of our 25-man going to waste on sub-replacement level filler anyway, so why not waste the spot on a kid with upside? He immediately became the Nationals' #4 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein and has been a fan favorite ever since due to some timely hits and not being Paul Lo Duca or Johnny Estrada.
6. Drafting John Lannan
Primary credit goes to scouting director Dana Brown, but the GM is bottom line on draft picks, so Jim gets his share too. Lannan, the 324th overall pick in the June draft, is a big guy (6'5"), but when he was drafted his fastball topped out at 88 and his only other pitch was a change-up. Since then, he has gained a couple ticks on the radar gun, added a serviceable slider and curve, and emerged as a legitimate major-league starter.
You can check out the history of every 324th pick going back to 1965 here. Only two other players drafted and signed at that pick have ever made the bigs--Mike Stanton (he of the walk-off balk) and Reds pitcher John Roper (drafted in 1990, before Jim got to Cincy). No other 11th round pick from 2005 has appeared in the majors. For that matter, no 9th or 10th round picks have either. Given all that, the Lannan pick was a home run, even if he's never anything more than a mid-rotation starter.
Because the success rates for any given pick is so low, some people are reluctant to ever give any team credit for good draft picks (or blame them for bad ones). These folks say it's all just a big crap shoot, and to look back at drafting successes or failure is just dumb, disingenuous 20/20 hindsight cherry-picking. I hate this attitude. No, it's not reasonable to expect any GM to hit on every pick every time, just as it's not reasonable to expect any hitter to get a hit every time up, but over time, a better talent evaluator will hit on more picks. Scouting and evaluating IS a repeatable skill, and those who do it well deserve praise. Bowden and Brown hit on this one big time, and they deserve credit.
5. Drafting Jordan Zimmermann
Which brings us to the other draft pick made during the Bowden era that stands out. Injuries in his senior year and the weather-shortened season at Zimmermann's alma mater Wisconsin-Stevens Point made him hard to evaluate, but he threw in the low to mid-90s with a good slider. At 6'2" and 205 pounds, the Nationals figured he would gain consistency with the velocity with age. He has, but more than that an arsenal of three good secondary pitches have emerged to make him a potential #2 starter in the majors.
4. Trading Jose Vidro for Emilano Fruto and Chris Snelling
It never hurts to be dealing with Bill Bavasi, but even still, this move is a real feather in Jim's cap. By 2006, Vidro was a balky-kneed, fast-fading 31-year-old earning $7 million a year who couldn't play second base anymore and didn't hit well enough to justify his spot in the lineup anywhere else. The Mariners decided to make him a DH. Go figure.
Dumping the contract was the main achievement here--getting two guys who had some minimally projectable prospect value was gravy. Snelling became Ryan Langerhans, while Fruto went to the D'Backs for Chris Carter who instantly became the PTBNL in the Wily Mo Pena deal. All in all, a pretty nifty set of assets in return for Vidro's decaying carcass.
3. Signing Esteban Loaiza
That first off-season was a horror show of ghastly moves, most notably the 2-year, $6.2 million thrown away on 37-year-old, Coors-inflated Vinny Castilla, four years and $16 million for Cristian Guzman (yeah, even after his 2008 it was still way too much for him), and a whole bench full of useless veteran dreck including Carlos Baerga, Gary Bennett, Wil Cordero, and Jeffery Hammonds.
But wait, I'm supposed to be praising Jim. Sorry. Upside-down day is hard. Loaiza figured to be a veteran innings-eater who would allow the team to avoid force-feeding youngsters like Zach Day, John Rauch, Tony Armas, and John Patterson. In fact, he turned out to be one of the lynch-pins of that delightfully fun (but still last place) 81-81 Nationals team in 2005. He threw 217 innings with a 3.77 ERA, and he deserved even better, as his fielding-independent ERA was a tidy 3.33. Fangraphs calculates his value that season at $15.6 million, quite a bit more than the $2.9 million we paid him.
The cherry on top of this little maneuver was that Loaiza returned the 22nd pick in the draft when he signed with Oakland in 2006. That pick became Colton Willems, who at this point probably won't pan out, but regardless it's the kind of move that helps speed a rebuilding process and one I wish Jim had done more more often.
2. Sucking up to Mark Lerner
No move by Jim was more important to his longevity as a general manager as his ability to ingratiate himself to the team owner. It was the same in Cincinnati with Marge Schott. Say what you want about Jim--he's an expert at maneuvering inter-organizational politics. And when it comes to brown-nosing the boss, there are few better.
Although I'm admittedly being a bit smart-alecky rating this as his second best move as GM, it's not totally irrelevant. It helps to have the ear of the owner as a GM. When you want to stick your neck out and get some money for a risky move, you want a GM whose judgment is trusted by the owner. Now, sadly, Jim used that deference to sign the likes of Smiley Gonzalez and Dmitri Young when he should have gone to the mat for Aaron Crow. Still, on this one key part of his job, he hit a grand slam home run.
1. Trading Glenn Gibson for Elijah Dukes
If you go back a decade or so to the days when Jim was highly regarded as a young, up-and-comer among MLB GMs, you'd hear about him as a daring, outside-the-box thinker who was always two or three steps ahead and seeing value where others didn't. The youngest GM in the league. The first guy to computerize the Yankees' scouting reports. Ron Gant. Pete Schourek. Eric Davis. Jeff Shaw. Trading Dave Burba--his opening day starter--the night before the season opener for Sean Casey. The Elijah Dukes trade gave us a glimmer of that old Trader Jim derring-do, and Nationals fans may well enjoy the benefits for a decade to come.
Y'all know the story. Dukes was a hothead in the clubhouse and a holy terror in the neighborhood. Baby mommas out the yin-yang. Physical confrontations with teammates, umpires, pretty much everyone. "You dead dawg." But boy what a sweet swing. What easy, natural power. What advanced strike zone discipline. We're not talking about one of Jim's toolsy, shiny metal objects--this guy is a ballplayer. If you could only figure out how to reach him.
Jim took a shot. A year later, Dukes has been more or less a model citizen, and in 276 ABs, he posted a .264 / .386 / .478 line that screams "all star in the making." These days, you hear more worries about his ability to stay healthy than stay out of trouble.
Oh, and Glenn Gibson? He's gone from the Nationals' #7 prospect to falling completely off the prospect radar with a 7.27 ERA in low-A ball. I'm still not a huge fan of a rebuilding team trading away young arms, but this deal is looking like far and away the greatest fleecing of Jim's time in DC, and in fact it could turn out to be the most one-sided trade in all of baseball over the last couple years.