Sunday, January 28, 2007
Chatting With The GM
For a long time, I wanted to meet with him and find out where he stands on so many issues concerning Our Washington Nationals. To some fans, he is a polarizing figure, the heat of all their frustrations with the team. To others, he is an absolute genius, creative, and willing to go the extra yard to make a deal. And, no doubt, I have expressed my criticism of his work, at times, in the past. But, like most all beliefs, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. I wanted to find out my own answers, from my own perspective (not someone elses), to that, and so much more.
The General Manager of The Washington Nationals is personally responsible for virtually each and every player, manager and coach that steps out on the field representing our town--Washington, DC. Whether you have money to spend or not for players and development, the image of The Nationals is forged by the vision of its own GM. No one, and I mean--NO ONE, dictates the moves of the baseball operations, like a General Manager.
Recently, I reached out again to The Washington Nationals, to see if Executive Vice-President & General Manager, Jim Bowden, would be kind enough to sit down with me, to discuss, my many questions about Our Nats. Sure enough, the response was positive. On Monday, January 22, I received a call from Jim Bowden, personally. He asked me to stop by his office at RFK Stadium on Wednesday, January 24th at 10AM. I was given 30 minutes, and it would be strictly adhered to. 30 minutes, no more.
Our discussions were wide ranging and covered many topics that, I believe, fans are always asking. Throughout the half hour, Bowden was engaging, expressive, pointed at times--but, undeniably--confident in his answers. I tried to get everything out on the table, exchanging ideas and thoughts. Unfortunately, I couldn't get to everything, 30 minutes goes by quickly in a captivating conversation. There were no ground rules, although he wasn't going to talk about potential trades and manuevers. But, if Bowden did not wish to answer a question, he would just say, "No Comment." (and that only happened once). As previously in my Chats, I recorded the entire interview on my Video Ipod with Belkin Recording Device. All the quotes are EXACT!! This post, is the first of two with Nationals General Manager, Jim Bowden. The Final Chapter following by this tuesday morning.
When The Montreal Expos were sold to Major League Baseball in 2002, they still had one of the finest Minor League Operations in the game. Year after year, this franchise could produce talented young players. And, make no mistake about it, for years The Expos were a viable competitive team. Unfortunately, its Canadian Owners never found a way to keep that talent, once it reached the Big Leagues. By the time The Expos were transferred to Washington, The Nationals were a bare bones skeleton operation, barely functionable. In December 2004, Jim Bowden was named the Interim GM by MLB. I asked Jim: How bad were the constraints with Baseball as Owners?
“I’ve had obstacles and constraints throughout my entire career, so, whether I was in Cincinnati working for Marge Schott, or working for Major League Baseball, everybody has constraints. If you look at the other 29 teams, everyone has types of parameters and obstacles. YOU LOOK AT IT AS A CHALLENGE!! YOU DON’T COMPLAIN ABOUT IT!"
"Look, we (The Expos under MLB) had ZERO BUDGET in the Dominican. We were not able to keep our good scouts. We were not able to keep our good development people. We were not able to draft the best players, because we could not afford to sign them. The organization continually had to trade their star players, because you couldn’t afford to keep them. And, in many cases, when they (Omar Minaya-then the GM & Tony Taveres, President) were told, prior to me getting here, the team was going to contract—THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO CARE ABOUT TRADING A FARM SYSTEM!!"
"So unfortunately, Jason Bay (Pirates All Star) is gone, and Grady Sizemore (Indians promising young centerfielder) is gone, and Cliff Lee (Indians lefthander starter) is gone, and Chris Young (Padres All Star) is gone. If you just put those four players back on this team right now, we are having a WHOLE DIFFERENT CONVERSATION!! And, 'The Plan' is completely different, because you are really close to winning. But they (MLB) were going to contract (The Expos). The team was for sale. They were running a business the right way, you can’t complain about Major League Baseball, when you look at what they bought Montreal for and what they sold it for. The word “Genius” should go on Commissioner (Bud) Selig’s plate for what happened here. It was in the best interest of Baseball, what he did. And now, look at the end result. They got the best owner they could (The Lerners). They got the best President in the game (Stan Kasten), and look at the future here. Although, there may well be short term pain, when you get to do everything the right way, for a long period of time--we saw in Atlanta, what happens (success)."
But, obviously, there is a perception, valid or not, there were deals to be made that could have helped this franchise, but, MLB turned down as owners?
“Everyday, of course. The same way it is today. There are deals you can make everyday, but you can’t go beyond your budget. So, you can’t make those deals. You always bring it to the people I work with and say: 'We have an opportunity to make this deal, and its really good to work with.' But the answer is: 'You are over budget.' We understand that and come back. The difference is, when The Lerner Family purchased the club, we had an opportunity to make such such a deal, which was not consistent with our plan. And, not consistent with our budget—two things right out of the get go. The Kearns, Lopez and Wagner Deal was not in our plan. It added payroll, that we did not have in the budget. Just like Esmailyn Gonzalez (16 year old Dominican Talent), there was no money in the budget for Gonzalez ($1.5 Million). We (Baseball Operations Staff) took it to Stan. This is a good baseball opportunity for what we are doing. We would like it approved, we understand its not in the budget. He agreed. We went to Ownership, got approval AND WE DID IT! That’s a major difference between when Major League Baseball owning the team, and The Lerner-Kasten regime. Remember, every club has restrictions, so yes, there were restrictions (Pre Lerner Ownership), of course there were—every club has budget restrictions. The Yankees have cut payroll this season by $12 Million, even they have had restrictions."
Since the official handover of Our Washington Nationals to The Lerner Group by Major League Baseball, the direction and operation of this franchise has changed drastically, as Bowden re-interated in making the big trade with Cincinnati and later signing Gonzalez. Yet, before the deal was final, Jim Bowden actively sought, the then available GM's job with The Boston Red Sox. At one point, calling it "The Dream Job". I asked him, how he feels about interviewing for that Red Sox job now? Any regrets?
"Had I known that this would be the ownership group and Stan would be The President, I wouldn’t have been interested in Boston. I think the Nationals General Manager's Job is the best job in ALL OF BASEBALL, because of the Ownership Group the Commissioner Selected. I don’t think you are going to find better owners. And, in the long run, the fans of Washington will be very appreciative of having first class ownership, that knows how to build an organization the right way."
Many would say that, since Stan Kasten became President of The Nationals, the way you conduct your business has changed? Why so?
“I have never in my career, ever been blessed with the opportunity to do things the right way. That means being able to make the right decisions in acquiring personnel, scouting, player development, amateur drafting and free agency. When you have the capabilities, abilities and the resources to get the best in the game. So—YES, my job as General Manager since they (The Lerners & Kasten) took over is a much different job, than I have ever had before, because you are allowed to do things the right way. I have never worked for anyone in my career that is smarter than me (Kasten), like I do now. Stan has taught me so much and helped me along, so much, in my career, because of all his experience that he’s had over the years."
Can you be more specific on how Stan Kasten has helped you, changed you?
“On a daily basis, it would be a book. It would be almost like an encyclopedia, its like every single day. Its funny, the world doesn’t know the real Stan Kasten, because he is a very private person. He’s not a public person. He’s a brillant man with a lot of depth, really a quick alert thinker. Is he the only person ever to be The President of Three Sports Franchises (Braves, Hawks, Thrashers) at the same time? (I believe so-SBF responds). I think he is the only one to do that? And, when you are involved with that many sports; and that many General Managers; and that many Head Coaches; and that many Managers; and that many players; the experience he’s had, and the abilities he’s had to learn, besides having to an extremely high IQ—OFF THE CHARTS! Allows for someone who can always on a daily basis help me to get better, help the organization get better and help direction. And, he’s always open, if I have a thought or idea or question. He’s available 24 hours a day, 7 Days per week, for me to call him, or email him to say, what do you think of this?; What do you think of that? What do you think of this concept? Stan is a great sounding board, and a great person to work for."
I tried really hard to get Bowden to say specifically say how Mr. Kasten has changed and improved him as a GM, so I will not speculate, he wouldn't get too specific. Though one thing is sure, since The Lerner takeover, there is a a lot less public acknowledgement and talking of possible team manuevers and transactions from The Front Office. Mr. Kasten told me, that he personally stepped in on the Alfonso Soriano non-trade last july 31st. The Washington Nationals do a majority of their work, behind the scenes, with a lot less flash/flair, not to be recognized until a conclusion is reached.
But, I would be remiss, if I didn't ask him whether he has any troubles dealing with other teams, as its well known, there are mixed opinions about him?
“I’ve made a trade with every team in baseball. I have never had a problem with relationships with General Managers. People write things all the time. My question is: ‘Pick up the phone and call the General Manager and ask him directly.’ If you don’t have that quote, call Brian Cashman (Yankees GM), call John Schuerholz (Braves GM), call the General Managers, Kenny Williams (The White Sox), go ahead, call ‘em. Perception becomes reality, and sometimes that's unfortunate, but, we all understand it.”
And, Bowden did not back down concerning the Cincinnati Reds General Manager, Wayne Krivsky's, continuing complaints to Major League Baseball, saying former Nationals Pitcher, Gary Majewski was damaged goods, and the Nationals knew it, before trading Gary to The Reds in last summer's big trade. Was anything hidden from Cincinnati?
"NOTHING ( and he got fired up)--We were extremely honest and upfront with the entire situation. Gary Majewski was healthy, the last 10 appearances with us, nine were shutouts. There (sort of chuckling) was no reason for us to believe, we had done anything wrong. We had an MRI in May (on Majewski, before the trade). There was nothing wrong with his shoulder. I was very clear, with Wayne Krivsky. I said, ‘Wayne, have your trainers talk to our trainers, your doctors, talk to our doctors. We will provide any medical information you want on any player in the deal, get it directly from them.' Their trainer DID TALK DIRECTLY, to our trainer—Tim Abraham. He was honest and forthright, every bit of information, that they (The Reds) wanted, was answered, every question honestly. We did nothing wrong."
Recently, Tim Abraham resigned as Team Trainer. Did this incident have anything to do with his leaving the club? “It had nothing to do with it--family decision (Tim’s wife recently gave birth to a baby).”
From this point, we moved on to chatting about the current team, the very real possibility that Our Washington Nationals may not be any good in 2007--and many fans might be upset and do not wish to support a losing team? Fans want to win now. We live in an instant gratification society. Your thoughts?
“That's the way we understand it with Baseball, with the internet, and the newspapers, DirecTV and cable and TIVO. Everybody wants to see it today. But, you know what, I think in Washington, DC, its different than most cities. Because, in Washington, DC, we have the most intelligent fans in the world. No offense to St. Louis, Cleveland, Boston, New York and some other great cities. I think the most intellectual baseball fans, are here in Washington. I found out in my first game here, when there was a man at second, nobody out, ground ball to the right side, move the guy up to third and the hitter got a standing ovation. Fans here are really smart, they really have vision. I am in the streets all the time. Whether, I am in the Grocery Store, or the Drug Store, or in Georgetown, in Alexandria—The Fans say ‘Keep the path, we understand. We want (Alfonso) Soriano too, but you did the right thing, you can’t put that much money on one player, because you weren’t going to win anyway.’ So, the difference between here and a lot of other cities, is the fans GET IT. NOT EVERYBODY, because we all want to win TODAY! But, for the most part, the intellectual fans really do get the long term plans. And, that means, there will be some suffering. Does that mean they enjoy seeing Ryan Zimmerman develop, and Austin Kearns develop, and (Felipe) Lopez develop, and (Brian) Schneider, and (Chad) Cordero develop? I think they do."
But, I have got to tell you, there are many fans out there that feel, since the team will not compete, for a few years, all those core players (minus Zimmerman) should just be traded off, to get younger. Because, once The Nationals do compete, those players will be older and on the downside of their careers?
"First of all, I think when you refer to players that are 25 to 28 years old, to say they are going to be too old when we get there (competitive) is just not accurate, and not fair. If a player is 32 or 33 now, I can’t tell you the answer to the question, because we see players now, that play until they reach 40 (years old) and can play. And, we see guys that are 32 years old and are finished. Its not an exact science, but for someone to say, ‘When you are ready to win that Kearns and Lopez and Cordero, and Schneider and (Nick) Johnson and Zimmerman are going to be too old.'---is simply NOT TRUE! And, the only way you can answer that, is to tell that fan ‘Do me a favor, look at the two teams that were in the World Series last year, look up how old they are?' and compare that to what our guys will look like, two or three years from now. And, YOU WILL SEE THAT IS JUST NOT THE CASE!!"
We sort of got off on a tangent about the healthy amount of Nationals Blogs and comments (both positive and negative), that are out on the internet each and every day. I believe there are, at least, 30 Nats Blogs and Chat rooms. And, I LOVED HIS RESPONSE--especially about his critics.
“That’s what makes those websites so much fun, because of people like that--its like talk radio. They are not suppose to like anything you do. They are suppose to show both sides, but, they want to stir it up, so you will respond to it. They want you to get mad. They want to have fun. Its like wrestling, professional wrestling. Its not a REAL WRESTLING MATCH, ITS AN ACT, ITS DRAMA, ITS FUN TO BE WITH. Its really great. The good thing is—They are all talking about baseball, AND THEY CARE!!. Whether someone is ripping you or praising you, THEY CARE, and that’s what its all about. WE WANT EVERYONE IN WASHINGTON TO CARE ABOUT THE NATIONALS!!"
Sitting directly in front of him, looking right at Bowden--He meant every word of it.
Getting back on the main subject of The Nationals competing, I asked, what about the case for buying Free Agents in the $3 Million dollar range, as a stop gap, that, over the short term, does not harm the long term plans?
"We all want to build a winner for Washington, and do it the right way. Could we be more competitive, if we signed three pitchers right now at $3 million a piece? Another $9 Million—Sure. But, do you think that fan wants $9 Million spent on three pitchers that are going to pitch one year here, or would they want that $9 million spent on young players like Zimmerman, Cordero and Kearns, and Lopez, and sign all these players in the draft, sign all these players internationally, so you can build a Championship Club? Is it better to spend the money there, or is it better to spend that money for one year."
The Devil’s Advocate in me would say--SBF Talking here--you don’t lose a draft pick for signing someone, you might benefit with a draft choice, when they leave?
"I am saying the money you spent, if we spend our dollars, on a pitcher, of $3 million dollars, then we have $3 Million less to spend on signing players in the draft and international baseball. Players, we would control six years in the minor leagues, six years in the Major Leagues, 12 years, as compared to someone you would carry for one year. Is that how you want to spend your money? Do you want to spend your money on mediocre pitching, or do you want to save your money?--so you can get a Number 1 or Number 2 (Starter)?"
Again trying to pin him down, SBF asks: Devil's Advocate says, that $3 Million is not a whole lot of dollars in the entire scheme of things, so when that one year free agent left, you could possibly get a draft pick in return, when he signs as a free agent, maybe improving your farm system faster?
"OK, but if the quality of pitcher you are going to get for that $3 million is: WHO, ON THE MARKET? There is not going to be a draft pick for Ramon Ortiz. He got $3 Million (with Minnesota). There is not going to be a Draft Pick for Tomo Ohka, who just got $1.5 (million) plus $1.5, $3 Million total. There is not going to be a Draft Pick for David Wells, who got $3 plus (million). There is no compensation there, zero, because no one is going to offer arbitration. So, you are going to spend the money and that’s all you are going to have for it (nothing). You don’t get a pick at the end of the year, after you pay the money. You can’t offer Ortiz arbitration, you would end up spending $7-8 Million. You can’t offer arbitration to Ohka (Milwaukee), they didn’t. They didn’t offer arbitration to Wells. These guys that are signed, look at the facts, the teams are not getting picks for those guys, that are left at the bottom of this free agent market."
Jim Bowden did tell me, unequivocally, on Tomo Ohka--We (The Nationals) did not offer Tomo Ohka a two year deal." (Nothing? I asked), Bowden did not reply, he remained silent.
And, Bowden closed the chapter on Ramon Ortiz (who just signed with Minnesota for $3.1 million).
"If he (Ortiz) was arbitrated, our attorneys, in house, as well as, the people we consult with, when you look at all he did, he would have had the case for $7 to $8 Million. Gil Meche got $10 (Million per season from Kansas City). He (Ortiz) is going to arbitration, because of innings pitched, he’s going to get $7 to $8, if we offered him arbitration. We did not think he was worth that type of money. So, we did not offer him arbitration. So there is no compensation there. Yet, we got a pick for (Jose) Guillen (shrewdly realizing Jose was definitely signing with Seattle).
"Player Development", "Scouting", they are the catch words and phrases, when it comes to discussing the near future of Our Washington Nationals. You may not be able to tell the Nationals Players without a scorecard in 2007, but you sure may well be able notice some rising young stars, if, the newly rebuilt, Scouting Department gets off the ground running. All Washington's bread appears to be placed in that one basket--you could tell Bowden was happy about the latest growth in his baseball staff.
"I have to say, when you look at young players in the game, like Ryan Howard (Phillies Slugger, MVP) and Albert Pujols (Cardinals Slugger, Former MVP), maybe Miguel Cabrera (Marlins)—we would all like to have those three young hitters in the middle of the lineup. When you are sitting here with a staff, with a Mike Rizzo (Asst. GM, VP of Baseball Operations) , who did what he did in Arizona (with the Diamondbacks), which was phenomenal. He found Brandon Webb (Cy Young Winner), (Stephen) Drew and Connor (Jackson), Carlos Quentin, Justin Upton--Its remarkable what he did there. Then, to add that to Dana Brown (Scouting Director), who has never had resources, and always produced on what he’s seen. You know, Clubs are lucky to get one of those guys, WE HAVE BOTH LEADING THIS DEPARTMENT!! We got Chuck Lemar (Special Asst. to the GM/Former Tampa Bay GM), when he was in that position (Scouting Director), did a great job for The Braves and helped build a Championship Club, from the start. Moose Stubbing (Special Asst. to the GM) was with the Angels, all those years. So, we have been provided the resources to go get THE BEST IN THE GAME!! Certainly, we want to be the best in the game at Scouting Development. Its take time though, its not going to be overnight, but we are moving in the right direction."
If you are moving in the right direction, outside of Latin America and Asia, what are the Emerging Markets for baseball talent?
"Today, you have to be everywhere. You have got to be in China. You have got to be in Australia, even though Chris Snelling wasn’t born there, you count him. But, we have to be everywhere, and we are going everywhere. We are just not limited to The Dominican, Venenzuela, Japan, or Korea—WE ARE LOOKING EVERYWHERE!!. Obviously, a lot of things we are doing, we don’t want to discuss, because we don’t want to give our competitors ideas of what we are actually doing. But, I can tell you we are being very aggressive."
Tomorrow--in The Final Chapter with Jim Bowden--its all about the players--"Pitching, Pitching, & Pitching", a whole lot of it (whether its good or not), Nick Johnson, Ryan Church (you know, I would get that question in), Austin Kearns, The GUZ!!, Escobar & Snelling; Is Nook Logan, really the answer in Centerfield??, and did you really have to trade/sell off FAN FAVORITE--Jamey Carroll (Its a great answer!) and HONEST!!
PS-A reader was kind enough to send me a picture of the Nats New BP Cap!! Thank YOU!!