Monday, March 2, 2009

Another Nats Blog - The Crushing Lows That Follow The Soaring Highs

Well, as you may already be aware, those Nats of mine can't let me remain content with them, not even for one week. If you read my blogs last week (or have even so much as pondered about baseball within a 3 ft radius of me at any point in my life), then you know that the Washington Nationals last week finally managed to make me a happy camper after 3 1/2 years of being a frustrated camper (and nobody likes those guys) by signing Adam "Big Gun" Dunn (I'm trying out nicknames so give it time) to a two year, $20 million contract that seemed to be a first step in the right direction of a team/organization hopefully on the rise. Now to be clear, I wasn't delusionally happy (i.e. expect an immediate World Series title), but more of a "content for now" kind of happy. I believed the move would allow some credibility to make its way back into the DC-area baseball scene and would finally begin pull the Nats out of that cellar known as "The Laughing Stock of Major League Baseball", which is a phrase that seems to follow them around no matter what sporting news source I check.

However, Nats General Manager Jim Bowden, his staff o' morons, and some guy apparently NOT named Esmailyn Gonzalez saw fit that I and NatsNation (again, trying out nicknames) needed a reality check on just how hopeless our favorite baseball team really is.

It turned out that the 19 year old SS elite prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez from the Dominican Republic is actually a 23 year old fraud named Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo. Now why he felt he needed to have another two names (Esmailyn Gonzalez) to go along with the four he already had (Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo) is plain and simple: Being 4 years younger would get him paid. $1.4 million to be exact. So 3 years ago, he claimed he was 16 and got his money in a contract with my Nats along with being dubbed proof positive that the Nats could compete with bigger MLB franchises such as the Yankees in the Dominican Republic. The problem of course is that a 20 year old prospect is not the same in the baseball world as a 16 year old prospect. If he was really 19 and hit the way he did last year in the minors (.342 avg), he's officially dubbed a huge prospect (Baseball America listed him as the 10th best prospect in the National's farm system) and is one-way trip to stardom should everything go right and he stay healthy. On the other hand, being 23 and hitting the way he did just makes him a behind-schedule prospect with much slimmer hopes of stardom unless he can have a massive year and tear through the minors in a hurry on his way to the major leagues. In essence, that 10th best prospect in the organization is now slightly above average at best and makes the farm system (which slipped from being #9 in the country in 2007 to being somewhere in the 20s in 2008) look even worse. That being said, not all (or even most) of the blame should be placed on his shoulders.

Instead that honor is bestowed on Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden, whose time in Washington has been turbulent, to say the least. As Tom Boswell wrote today in his article for the Washington Post, "a Nats franchise that shoots itself in the foot every time it gets a new pair of shoes has taken another painful public pratfall." I couldn't have said it any better (and I've tried). He goes on to cite specific examples such as "Get a new city-built ballpark; don't pay the rent. Get a coveted No. 1 draft pick; don't sign him. Promise a better team to inaugurate a new park; lose 102 games. Expect sellouts in Southeast Washington; average 12,000 empty seats. Sign slugger Adam Dunn; have a scandal explode the next week." I put quotes on these because they are his words, but that doesn't make them any less true. Every single one of those has happened to the Nats under Jim Bowden's regime and while not all of them are his fault (the rent thing falls on the owners), most of those happenings can be traced directly back to the product that Jim Bowden put together to be on that field at game time. In fact, the list that Boswell has put together doesn't mention some things that Bowden has been able to skate by with doing.

For instance, signing seemingly every former Cincinnati Red he could get his hands on that had anything to do with his time as the General Manager there (Dmitri Young, Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, Aaron Boone, and more) despite the Reds organization being a bottom-feeder in the NL Central for quite a few years now (and more than partially because of his doing). It would be one thing if he brought them here and they succeeded, but Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez have been epic flops (Lopez is no longer with the team), Dmitri Young had one great year and has since been unable to control his weight and diabetes problems, Aaron Boone was nothing more than a serviceable backup, and Adam Dunn, for all the praise I gave him last week, is an incomplete player defensively and will never hit for a good average.

Bowden has also very narrowly avoided looking like a moron on several occasions with other personnel decisions. Trading OF Ryan Church and C Brian Schneider to the Mets for OF Lastings Milledge last year looked to be a decent move that would garner the Nats a promising young prospect. However, Milledge struggled mightily playing defense in CF last year, fell into a massive slump early in the season, got hurt, and managed to hit .300 over the remainder of the season to bring his average for the year up to a respectable .268 while Ryan Church got off to a brilliant start in the Mets lineup before suffering a concussion. Bowden was saved from looking like a complete moron by Milledge's 2nd half of the year and Church getting knocked stupid, but only barely and Milledge will have to continue his success this year for Bowden to escape criticism.

However, his luckiest moment by far has got to be his acquisition of SS Christian Guzman in 2005. Guzman came to DC with a 4 year, $20 million contract that initially looked just downright terrible because of his constant struggles that year to hit above .200. He got injured, got eye surgery, retooled his hitting approach, and made it back into the starting lineup consistently just in time to .316 last year and earn himself a spot on the All-Star team in the final year of his contract, which was extended before the end of the season. If not for last season, the whole transaction would have been a complete failure on Bowden's part.

All this being said about Bowden's reign as GM is fine and dandy, but the biggest case for his ineptitude has to be last season. Say what you want about injuries plaguing the team causing it to fail, but when it comes down to it, the majority of the players on that team were brought in by Bowden to contribute and failed on an epic level. The only players on the team that proved to be worth anything tradeable were Jon Rauch and Luis Ayala, two bullpen pitchers from before Bowden's time as GM. Epic disappointments like OFs Willy Mo Pena and Austin Kearns, SS Felipe Lopez, and Cs Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada were all Jim Bowden acquisitions. Of the five players I just mentioned, only Pena and Kearns are still on the team and both are considered unlikely to see much playing time this year.

All last year, team president Stan Kasten tried desperately to assure me that, though the major league team was awful, hope was on the horizon with a quickly rebuilding minor league system. Then, of course the team failed to sign its top draft pick, a pitcher named Aaron Crow who was widely considered to be the best pitching prospect in the draft over a somewhat small difference in contract money. That was just one part of a domino effect that saw many young and highly touted Nats prospects in one way or another do a collective face-plant in their careers. OF Justin Maxwell and 1B Chris Marrero, amongst others, caught the injury bug and lost large portions of their seasons. Ps like Matt Chico, Jason Bergman, and Chad Cordero had similar fates. The young players called up out of the minors to see playing time for the most part fell flat on their faces as well, but through performing poorly rather than injury. What was a year before a top 10 farm system suddenly looked very inept and that year's rating reflected it, dropping down into the 20s.

Now compared to all that, the Gonzalez turned Lugo ordeal looks small, but don't fall into that easy trap. The difference between this ordeal and all the ones that came before it is that this one became public and in a hurry. Whereas all the individual player failures last year were able to hide, clumped together in a terrible season, the "player to be named later" (as Stan Kasten calls him) has brought direct public scrutiny down into that Laughing Stock cellar to take a gander at this Nationals organization. Although frequently criticized by most people in the sports media, never before has every single paper in the country taken such a close look at a Bowden mess-up.

This is a very public scandal and I don't want to take it sitting down. As a frequenter of Nationals Park, the son of season ticket holders, and an inconceivably big Nats fan, my money that I spend at the Park goes to funding the organization in a small, but nonetheless vital way. As such, I and all the Nats fans like me who do the same are technically helping to fund this sideshow and the product Jim Bowden puts on the field every game has been disappointing to say the least. Enough is enough. Bowden has had 5 years to turn this ship around and has only tread water, if not submerged the ship and turned a once respectable Montreal Expos franchise into a PR disaster in the nation's capital.

I don't know how much more the man has to do to get fired already, but here's to hoping this does the trick.

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