Monday, March 2, 2009

Jim's Ten BEST Moves as Nationals GM

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:

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.

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.


estuartj said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the McGeary signing. No matter how he turns out it was a great move to go for the hard to sign guy, give him the money and the flexibility in his contract to still attend school.

That signing sent an important message to players and agents that the Nats would push hard for top draft talent and would go above and beyone to sign them.

The Crow fiasco damaged that, but if you take the Crow non-signing as the exception and not the rule it puts a new light on JP Ramirez as another McGeary-esque signing (I have long held that Crow/Ramirez was not a strict either/or scenario, regardless of Jim Bowden's cover my ass comments at the time).

Steven said...

Yeah, that could turn out great. I'm not a huge fan of the part-time arrangement. I think it'll stunt his development. Would have been much better to just buy him out of Stanford outright. But assuming that wasn't possible, it was a creative solution. We'll see.

Unknown said...

I think signing as many picks as we did out of the 2007 draft was quite an accomplishment. I forget the exact number (and I'm too lazy to look it up right now) but he signed something like the first 21 picks and 25 of the first 27. Some of those picks include Jordan Zimmerman, McGeary (mentioned in another post), Marerro (I think), and others who are ranked highly in our system right now.

Another "accomplishment" could be signing Ryan Zimmerman, although I don't know if this deserves making the list because it seemed like an obvious move to make and we have yet to lock him up long term.

Finally, I think the Willingham/Olsen deal deserves to be up there. I don't know what your thoughts are on what we gave up (P.J. Dean and Smolinski might turn into something for Florida) but at the moment that seems like a win for the Nats in the short term.

estuartj said...

Steven, two things on McGeary; 1. I think the team always hoped that he would come play full time before his normal draft year, which has in fact come about so kuddos there. 2. I'm not sure that if McGeary had stayed part time for his 3 years at Stanford that his development would be stunted, or even significantly slowed. The down vs playing in college is fewer competitive games, but the upside is he can play with the pros in the summer and you have a continuity of coaching not available if he was playing at Stanford.

Sure it would be better to have him play pro ball full time, but I think he might develop better and perhaps faster than if he was playing in college, plus we might not have the chance to draft him 3 years later.

All in all a great move IMO.

estuartj said...

Shairon Martis for Mike Stanton also deserves an honorable mention, as half season rental of a LOOGY for a MLB starter (even if just a fill in) is a pretty good return.

I would argue that Bowden did quite well in getting valuable return for the vets on the roster, either in trade or in draft picks.

I'm glad he done and we can move on, but sometime in the not too distant future we're all going to chafe at the slow pace of the next stage of The Plan and wish the GM had a little bit more of that Trader Jim pluck, but in the long run we need a more stable force in the GM chair to oversea long term player development and hopefully the days of having to look under every rock to find some morsel of talent to try to patch together a frankenstein's moster type of roster are long gone.

Craig said...

I think he deserves some credit for getting Soriano. But then he lost any good will by the way he handled it after that.

It sure was fun to have Soriano around.

Steven said...

I don't totally disagree, but I'm not ready to say that deal was a win for Jim.

The Armando Galarraga factor makes that deal still a question mark. If he's better than Jordan Zimmermann, it's a loss, or at best a wash.

Steven said...

Martis for Stanton: agreed. That move would land somewhere in my top 15, if I went that deep.

Signing all the picks in 2007 was good, but that's more of an ownership move. I didn't

I'm happy they got McGeary, don't misunderstand. I'm just saying there are mitigating factors that keeps it out of the top ten for me.

I've written before that I wasn't a fan of Willingham/Olsen. Other people like it a lot, and I understand their POVs. But I really don't like Scott Olsen, and I probably like Smolinksi, Dean, and Bonifacio a little more than most people do. And then in general I just don't like it when this rebuilding team trades 3 young, improving players for 2 older, declining ones.

Section 138 said...

I know, like you said, it falls mostly to the GM with draft picks, but it was Mike Rizzo who eventually made that miserable scouting trip to Wisconsin to see Zimmermann.
Keep up the good stuff, SoCH.

Steven said...

I'm surprised the Livan Hernandez for Chico/Mock didn't make your list. And didn't he rent out Stanton TWICE? (I should point out, in case one could not tell from the question, I am not the author of this blog, despite what my name might imply)

James Bjork said...

While I think it was time for Jimbo to go, looking back on these moves, I really don't think he was a complete disaster. I think his creativity went a long way at times. It's not like he was given the resources and green light to go after prime free agent talent every year.

Also, if you add up all of his boneheaded free-agent signings (giving considerable partial credit to Guzman's 2008), they barely add up to a single year of a Darren Dreifort or Kevin Brown or Richie Sexson or Andruw Jones mega-bust.

Could any of us have foreseen how Lo Duca imploded off of steroids? Also, Meat Hook could have just as easily maintained his health rebound (seeing where it got him) as he did to sit on his new $10 mil fortune and and let himself go. Eat less, move more- diabetes or no.

In the big picture, aside from Aaron Crow, his busts were chump change- at least at the rates FAs were selling for prior to this current off-season.

I suspect that if his personality weren't so purely obnoxious, he would not have had so many call for his head on a platter. You can make shrewd moves without gloating about them afterward, for example.

Ahh well, turning the page...

Doug said...

I disagree with leaving the Soriano trade out....Soriano put up a 40/40 season. 40/40! Even if he was only here for 1 year, that is worth armando gallaraga (who BP is expecting a huge dropoff from this year), and a bunch of other scrubs (i wonder what wilkerson and termel sledge are up to now?). Oh yea, and we ended up getting our top prospect in the farm right now as compensation. Also, lets credit him for already having Vidro at 2B but still trading for him and forcing him to move to LF, which he was much more suited to play. Soriano was a baby about it cause he knew he would get more money at 2b when he went to free agency, but Jim forced him to play left and Soriano ended up with a ton of assists. IMHO the Soriano trade was easy top 5...

Steven said...

I understand the argument for the Soriano deal, and I could see why it would be on someone else's top 5.

My perspective is that a one-year-rental, however great, isn't really worth much for a team that only wins 76 games. Wilkerson has gone downhill big time, but he had a lot of trade value at that moment. If he had been flipped for prospects, we could have gotten players that would be helping us long-term.

I understand that Sori turned into Zimmermann, but that's a convenient coincidence. He could have just as easily turned into Colton Willems or Josh Smoker. Trading Soriano for a 2nd round draft pick is bad value.

That's my rationale, which I understand not all share, but there it is.

sec231 said...

Steven, if I'm remembering this wrong and confusing you with someone else, I apologize in advance.

I think you should give Jimbow even more credit for #1 because, IIRC, you completely hammered him for this trade when it first happened and talked up Gibson's great potential.

Again, if that wasn't you, I apologize, but I'm pretty sure you were all over that as a terrible, terrible trade at the time and an example of why he was such an awful GM.

Brian and Holli Jones said...

I must disagree with the schneider/church deal for Millage. Millage will never be any better than a bottom of the lineup hitter with speed unless he grows up alot. And he is not dedicated to the game enough to improve his defense. Basically he is lazy and does not care. So if he finally grows up, it is likely it will be right around his free agency period, then he will be gone.

The Mets got two starters both ranked average to better than average players at their position overall, and we got one guy who may be just as good.

With Church playing RF everyday and Schneider playing catcher everyday, then we should have won 72 games last year. I ran the numbers using my diamond mind baseball game.

Not good value at all!

Brian and Holli Jones said...

Willingham and Olson are hardly old declining players!!! Olson is only 25. That makes him the same age as garret Mock! He is a huge deal! Meanwhile Willingham is 30. Most players improve until they are 31 then start to decline. Since we do not have him long term. Its a deal!

Bonafacio is a powerless hitter with zero strike zone judgment. It is very likely he will never be a regular starter in the big leagues. That was obvious to everyone in baseball except for Bowden until he traded for him, then even Bowden came along!

The marlins have a bad defensive starting secondbasemen, so they needed a good glove to back him up, and they wanted to cut salary.

Sam said...

What is this, Re-hire Jim Bowden? ;)

Hawerchuk said...

I still think the Kearns deal was a swindle. Kearns and Lopez were projectable as good players; I don't think the direction their careers took should be a strike against Bowden, and he sent junk to Cincinnati.

Steven said...

231--you're thinking of someone else. I wasn't even blogging then.

Brian and Holli--Like I said, I don't believe in Olsen. He may not be old, but he's certainly declining. Look at his FIPs, K rates, and velocity over the last 3 years. Willingham is 30.

sec231 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sec231 said...

Steven, I was referring to you posting that on Nats Journal as SoCH.

As I said, I could be mis-attributing the comment from someone else to you, but I wasn't talking about a blog posting.

Steven said...

I suppose it's possible. I'm not sure I was commenting then either. I'm pretty sure I didn't discover this whole chatting about baseball on the internet subculture before this year. And as far as I can remember I rooted for Dukes.

But if it was me, it's possible I said soemthing dumb and changed my mind. That happens a lot.

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing post to look back at now.