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Picking Splinters: Judging Bowden’s Fate

Twice in recent weeks, Sports Illustrated baseball guru Jon Heyman has mentioned the heat has steadily been increasing underneath the seat of Washington Nationals’ General Manager Jim Bowden. It’s all just speculation at this point, but it does offer an opportune time to discuss Bowden’s tenure with the team.

Since Bowden’s hiring in 2004, he’s experienced a love-hate relationship due to his aggressive tendencies at the trade table. He has acquired All-Stars (Alfonso Soriano, Cristian Guzman in 2008). He has acquired busts (Willy Mo Pena, Cristian Guzman in every season but 2008). However, it seems he is perpetually changing the face of the Nationals roster. At the moment, that face is one no Beverly Hill plastic surgeon would ever take credit for. The Nationals’ 38-67 record is the worst in the Majors and some T-ball teams feature more potent offenses.

Given the state of the franchise when Bowden took over – a middling big-league roster and a ravaged farm system – the Nationals’ residency in the basement of the National League East is not exactly surprising. That said, their amazing first half of the season in 2005 may have left some fans expecting more. That roster -Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson, Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro, Vinny Castilla, Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza and John Patterson – actually led the NL East at the All-Star Break. Things looked deceptively bright in D.C.

Then everything changed. Injuries began to take their toll, sidelining Johnson, Guillen and Patterson. Wilkerson was dealt in the offseason for Soriano, and Castilla was traded for pitcher Brian Lawrence. The team let Loaiza walk during free agency. Hernandez got off to a rough start, and it was evident early the 2006 squad could not recapture the magic of a year prior. So the dealin’ wheels of Trader Jim began turning. Today, only Nick Johnson remains from the 2005 team that first graced the field at RFK Stadium.

The turnover is not necessarily a bad thing. Factors such as player age, spending restrictions and the desire of the Lerner family and new President Stan Kasten to build the team from the farm system up all played a role in the team’s turnover. But for all of the deals that have been spun since 2005, the Nationals have received little of use in return.

Soriano only stuck around for a year, departing via free agency. Lawrence flamed out and was released. Vidro was sent to Seattle for Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto. Those two prospects were then turned into part-time player Ryan Langerhans and Chris Carter. Carter – .298 with 22 HR and 74 RBI for the Red Sox’ AAA affiliate – was then dealt for Willy Mo Pena.

Pena has always been a favorite of Bowden’s, and the GM has a tendency to trade for players he once signed as the Reds’ GM. See also: Austin Kearns (.215 in 223 AB this season), Felipe Lopez (.235 and in Manager Manny Acta’s doghouse) and Ryan Wagner. That practice has left fans dubious as to whether Bowden is trying to improve the team or just prove himself right about his favorite prospects.

Even so, for the scant talent the Nationals have received, it is not as though the players Washington traded away have gone on to great things. Have you heard anything from Terrmel Sledge lately? Wilkerson? Majewski? The only instance of coming up short for the Nationals was a move many GMs believed favored Washington – trading Brian Schneider and Ryan Church to the Mets for Lastings Milledge. And that deal will not be born out until 23-year-old Milledge hits his prime.

The flip side to this lack of return on trades is that Bowden’s reconstruction of the farm system has been stellar. Baseball America rated the Nats’ 2007 draft the best in baseball, and this season the team’s minor league affiliates had the best combined record at the All-Star break. That growth is what the Lerners and Kasten wanted, and I have to believe that will be the No. 1 criterion for judging Bowden’s fate.

The team has not evolved as Bowden believed it would, but I’m not sure if his overall performance warrants the loss of his job at the moment. Sometime soon though, the major league roster must improve. Another year at the bottom of the league may be what it takes to bury Bowden for good.

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