Monday, January 29, 2007
The Final Chapter With Jim Bowden
Washington Nationals Executive Vice-President & General Manager, Jim Bowden, sits in a small odd rectangular office, as small and as odd shaped as Team President, Stan Kasten, at RFK Stadium. In fact, their respective offices connect through an adjoining Conference Room. Sitting at his desk, Bowden can look up to his right to a Gigantic Marker Board. On that board, is the ever evolving list of players currently invited to Spring Training--2007. A list that seems to grow--daily. Which, at last check, 37 of those listed on the Spring Training Roster were pitchers.
At a time, when Our Washington Nationals are searching for new footing and a solid future, 2007 could, potentially be a difficult year to swallow for many Nationals Fans. The team, by most all accounts, may not be too good. Even Team Owner, Ted Lerner, recently stated, The Nationals are not working for a World Series Ring this season.
As I continue my conversation with Jim Bowden, I asked him, what can Nats Fans look forward to this spring?
"First of all, we have a whole lot of talented players that get overlooked because of Alfonso Soriano electing Free Agency, and the fact that our starting pitching is in complete disarray, which is why, we all have the conclusion we have. But, we do have a lot of solid young players, still on this team to build around---Ryan Zimmerman, and Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, Brian Schneider—We have a start. We have a really good young bullpen with (Chad) Cordero, (Luis) Ayala and (Jon) Rauch leading the way. We got things to build on. You are never going to be good until you have starting pitching, no one goes to the Post Season without starting pitching. And, until we get that, we WILL NOT BE a team that can go to the post season. But, every trade we work on, every draft pick we work on, EVERY DAY, that's all we are doing, is having all our top people, look at PITCHING, PITCHING,and PITCHING."
"Eventually, we will get there. When will we get there? Its going to happen, when WE LEAST EXPECT IT. I remember, when we had claimed (Northern Virginia Product & Pitcher) Pete Schourek (while Bowden was the Cincinnati GM) off waivers from The Mets, he had the highest ERA among all pitchers in Major League Baseball. Then, the next year, he was second in Cy Young. People didn’t really see that coming. He got to the right age and everything came together. You have no idea how quick a young prospect, all of a sudden, GETS IT!! And, the one thing we are going to get to do, is give people the opportunity. We are not going to have a rotation that’s just stuck with a veteran older player, who’s there for a stop gap year or two. We will have a rotation that is completely evolving. Opportunities will be there for a young pitcher, who wants to step up and take advantage of it. Is there going to be growing pains? SURE. The rotation we have in April, will not be the same rotation we have in June; nor be the same one, we have in September."
Pitching, Pitching & Pitching is your favorite phrase??
"It is HOW YOU WIN!!"
With the starting pitching for 2007 is total disarray right now, I asked him, who, in the off season pickups might actually be sleepers in the rotation. Bowden flat out stated, he's not depending on any of them, for the long term.
"We are not building a team this off season. We are building a long term team. So, we are drafting a Colton Willems, trading for Johny Nunez, trading for Shairon Martis. These guys are in "A" Ball and not ready for the Big Leagues. The work we are doing now, is for the back end of the organization. Its like building a skyscraper, we are not building THE PENTHOUSE right now. We are building the foundation. We are building THE BUILDING, the right way. So, we haven’t been active this off season. We decided not to put that money in the Major League Payroll. We decided to put that money in the development and scouting system, so we can win for the long term. Our process in different than, what we have done in the past. Our emphasis is on more trading, drafting and signing the young players, to build a strong farm system."
But, I contined my line of questioning, to find out if, as fans, there is any hope for those pitchers signed by The Nationals this past off season?
"If you are referring to 6 year free agents, I would tell you this: If we have 14 candidates to start in spring training, besides John Patterson, I can’t tell you who ANY OF THE OTHER FOUR ARE GOING TO BE!! And, I won’t be able to tell you until Opening Day. And, no one will be able to tell you until Opening Day, either. You may have a scout, who has an opinion? Or, Manny Acta may have an opinion; or I may have an opinion; who has that best shot. But, with this group of 14, the only people who will determine those that go north are those actual pitchers, that get on the mound, pitch and compete at Spring Training."
Now, looking up at his BIG BOARD--The Spring Training Roster, Bowden continued, raising the level of his voice, more and more, as he spoke:
"Now, who are those people?--(Jason) Simontocchi, Shawn Hill, Beltran Perez, Mike O’Connor, Tim Redding, Jerome Williams, Jason Bergmann, Levale Speigner, Colby Lewis, Joel Hanrahan, Matt Chico, Chris Michalak, Winston Abreau, Louis Martinez, ARE THE BEST CANDIDATES, AS OF NOW!! But, I would not want to eliminate, (Mike) Bacsik, or (Anastasio) Martinez, (Josh) Hall, (Eduardo) Valdez, or (Felix)Diaz—JUST IN CASE!! And, you know what? Don’t be surprised, if someone from accelerated camp, like Garret Mock, or Collin Balester, come out of nowhere and find themselves in the rotation. Our pitcher that starts game four of this season, my not even be in Big League Camp right now—neither might be the guy pitching Game five (of the 2007 season). THAT'S THE TRUTH!!. Its going to be an evolution. Its going to be based on pure competition. The one thing the pitchers here know--if you want to pitch in the Big Leagues—THIS IS THE BEST OPPORTUNITY YOU WILL EVER, EVER HAVE!! (and he could not emphasized the point more)"
He was so excited, rising his inflections to a new level, enjoying the moment. That, I caught him off guard with my very next question. Over the past two seasons, Bowden has been able to trade lefthanded, veteran, reliever, Mike Stanton, twice, for draft picks to Boston (two youngsters) and San Francisco (for Martis). Knowing the success he's had at dumping off veterans, at the trading dealine for prospects, I asked him--If I leave this office, right now, fly to Las Vegas, make a bet that come July 31st (the trading deadline), you will trade (Lefthanded Free Agent Reliever) Ray King for two prospects, will I win that bet?
Bowden gave his only "no comment," of the interview, smiling with pursed lips, "Next Question", he stated (but the body movement and inflection was terrific, A GREAT SMILE!!). He wasn't going to answer, but he wasn't going to deny me. I am calling it a YES!! (SBF Commenting Here), and will be making that wager. That question and subsequent non-answer, was my favorite moment of the entire chat.
My final question surrounding pitching was the mention, in various publications, that The Nationals will carry 12 pitchers on the 25 Man Roster this season. And, with the knowledge that Rule V Draftee, Jesus Flores, must stay on the roster all season long, or be returned to The New York Mets. Will this greatly affect the bench, and In Game Decisions, by Manager, Manny Acta?
"At this point, at least on paper, I just can’t imagine having under 12 pitchers, because, we certainly want to protect all of our pitchers (from injury)—health is extremely important. I just can’t imagine going under 12, unless it’s the first month of the season (more open dates—many weather related cancellations). Does it hurt our positioning to acquire a young catcher that Davey Johnson, John Stearns (Former Managers, Now Scouts), and Manny Acta think will be an everyday catcher in the Big Leagues someday? Given our situation, trying to build for the future, we’d be pretty foolish, if we would rather keep a 34 year old veteran player, over a young catcher, you think will be an everyday player with 25 to 30 Home Run power, given our situation and direction. That would be a pretty foolish decision."
From there it was time to talk about the everyday Washington Nationals Lineup, and the biggest news for fans, of late, has been, the reported, handing of The Starting Centerfield Job to Nook Logan? No doubt, Logan has the speed and defensive capabilities, but, as he showed late last season, struggles offensively. So, I mentioned, I was surprised to hear this, so soon, before Spring Training has begun?
"You have to catch the ball!! We have to improve our defense. In this ballpark (RFK Stadium), you have got to catch the balls, in the gap, or you will lose everyday, 8-0! With our inexperience, with our pitching staff, that we have out there, it is going to be extremely important, that we have good defense. Nook Logan, is he going to hit? We don’t know that. He’s going to get the opportunity to show he can, or can not hit. We also have to evaluate whether Alex Escobar is healthy. Escobar could end up in centerfield if he (Logan), does not hit enough. We know he (Logan) can play defense. Right now (with our pitching problems/defense), we want him to catch everything he possibly can into the gaps."
I have said (SBF Here), on many occasions, that Alex Escobar is a 5 tool player, capable of performing great things. Yet, his constant injury problems have curtailed his career, mightily. I asked Bowden, if both Escobar and recently required, Chris Snelling, will ever get over the injury bug?
"I don’t have the answer to that. The funny part was, when I had Reggie Sanders (in Cincinnati), we had the same thing (injury problems). Will Reggie Sanders ever get healthy. We (Red's Baseball Brain Trust) debated, FOREVER, because a lot of opinions were, that he never will (Bowden now opening a large spiral bound book, on his desk, of every player in The Major Leagues, flipping to Sander’s Stats). And, the interesting thing about Reggie is that, all of sudden, in 2002, when he turned 35 years old (pointing at Sanders record in the book), he got healthy. And, he started playing everyday. In ’02, ’03 & ’04, he had a run where he did (remain healthy and productive). I can’t tell you, if Escobar and Snelling are going to be healthy. I do know, they have a lot of potential, if they do!"
He did go on to say that both Escobar and Snelling will get every opportunity to show themselves in Spring Training, as well as, up and coming rookie Kory Casto. Which begs the question, what about Ryan Church? To many fans, he is a favorite, and for various reasons, has never been able to become an everyday starter. Why has Ryan Church not made it, yet?
"Ryan Church as produced in the At Bats, he’s had in the Big Leagues. Certainly, he has struggled against breaking balls and off speed pitches away. He can definitely hit a fastball. For him to get to the next level, he’s going to have to hit that breaking ball and change up. You can’t hit .180 on non fastballs and stay in The Big Leagues—which he has done. But, that being the case, I think Ryan has worked, really hard, with Bill Harrison (Visualization Expert-Optometrist) this off season. He has tremendous eyes, he has tremendous depth perception. And, his hands are, from the setup position to contact, is as good a bat speed as you need in the Major Leagues to be a .300 hitter, 30 (Home Run), 100 (RBI) guy. Does he develop into that? I think he really has the potential to do that, you have got to get the At Bats to do it. Does he come in here and beat out Kory Casto, Chris Snelling and (Alex) Escobar? He (Church) will be given EVERY OPPORTUNITY to do that. But, we are going to put the best players out there, and that’s what we have done before."
When it comes to putting the best players out there on the field for Our Washington Nationals, there has been no player more vilified, by fans, than Cristian Guzman, for his under performance in 2005. Cristian was injured and out all of 2006. He's back this year, and, for now, is handed the starting shortstop position. Is Guzman on a short leash, if he does not play well?
"We will put the best team on the field that, we can. We think that team is Guzman at short, and Lopez at 2nd. But, we are certainly blessed with an All Star Shortstop, in Felipe Lopez. And, if our best team, includes Felipe at short, and someone else at second, then that’s what we are going to play. Contracts do not come into play when it comes to putting your best team out there (on the field). We put the best players out there."
But, one of Our Nationals very best players, Nick Johnson, is reportedly, recovering slowing from his off season broken right femur. In fact, Washington was so concerned, they recently signed veteran, journeyman, first basemen, Travis Lee, and invited him to Spring Training. Is Nick Johnson making progress? When can we expect his return?
"I think in our situation, the one thing, we do not want to do, is bring him back too soon, where he’s limping and because of his leg, we now hurt a knee--Because of a leg (problem), we now hurt a hip. So, the important thing is to make sure that we don’t rush the process. The most important thing is, we want Nick Johnson long term. He’s a young guy—in his prime. Solid hitter with a high on base percentage, who had a below average defensive year for him (2006), but is a Gold Glove caliber first basemen. He will get back to that form, I am confident. Will he be ready come Opening Day? I don’t know that. Will he be ready May 1st? I don’t know that. I will not be able to tell you that, neither will the doctors, by the way, or Nick, until he gets back on the field and gets ready. I have seen players, where they (The Doctors) tell me, 'Jim, it's a fracture, expect him out 4-6 weeks.' He (the player) played 8 days later. And, I have seen situations where the players was suppose to be out for 3 weeks, he’s out four months. So, there is one thing I have learned (as a GM), is the body heals differently with every player. No doctor, no player, no GM can give you an accurate time table."
What about the effect on Austin Kearns? Is he out of it, mentally, feeling guilty for his involement in the incident with Johnson (Kearns sled, cleat first, into a sliding Johnson--leading to the broken leg)?
"I don’t think he's out of it. I was proud that Austin scored 86 runs, drove in 86 runs (in 2006), hit 24 home runs, played healthy for the first time in his career, playing every day. I think Austin is going to continue to get better and improve. He’s only 26 years old. He has not hit his prime yet." (SBF here, Bowden didn't seem worried, at all, the matter of Nick's injury now past Kearns).
My time with Jim Bowden was running out--in fact, you might say I was on borrowed time, at this point. But, I had to get in one final question, about, Fan Favorite, Jamey Carroll. Carroll was The Nationals' utility man, extrordinaire, during their Inaugural Season of 2005. A blue collar worker, that never complained, and gave his very best, each and every time out on the field for Washington. Unfortunately, over the 2005/2006 off season, The Nationals sold off Carroll to the Colorado Rockies, to a great disappointment of many fans, and Manager Frank Robinson. Many believed, that move enabled the Nationals to bring Damian Jackson (a true non favorite in 2006) on board. I finished my Chat With The GM asking Bowden, whether he regretted getting rid of Jamey Carroll?
"Sure, I think it was a mistake. Jamey had a lot of character. It was a budget decision. When we (Baseball Think Tank) took it to Tony Taveres (Nats President under MLB Ownership), we wanted to sign Royce Clayton, because we were concerned that, if Cristian Guzman did not hit, we did not want to watch the same thing we had watched the year before (2005). So, we knew that Jamey Carroll could not play short. He was a great utility guy at 2nd and 3rd (base), but our concern was, if Guzman couldn’t play short, who was going to play shortstop everyday and catch the ball for our pitching staff? We wanted to have Clayton. We went (to Taveres) and the response was: ‘You can have Clayton or Carroll, you can not afford both.’ Given our situation, I said, we need the shortstop. We can’t feel comfortable enough in the present situation. As it played out, Guzman got hurt, as it turned out Clayton was our shortstop, AND AS IT TURNED OUT, IF WE DIDN’T HAVE CLAYTON, WE WOULD NOT HAVE HAD KEARNS, LOPEZ AND WAGNER!! Because, they (Cincinnati) would not have done Lopez without getting Clayton back (in return). So, would I rather have Lopez and Carroll, yes. Do I regret the fact that we couldn’t keep both Carroll and Clayton, and, have Clayton there with Carroll--Yeah, that was a mistake."
With that last answer, my "Chat with The GM" came to it official conclusion. I had so much more to ask him, but I, flat out, ran out of time. Bowden was very interested in everything I had to say, and he enjoyed our back and forth commentary. So, much so, he asked me to stay in touch. Obviously, I will. Alot goes on behind his office doors in the development of Our Washington Nationals. So much, that we never will know about, yet, I was able to get a small peek at some of that back room action in a Major League Front Office. I am very grateful for Jim Bowden's time, he shared with me.