The Nationals did not exactly thrill anyone with their play, or their initial roster for that matter. I selected the Nats to finish fifth in the National League East behind the Marlins back in March, and despite Alfonso Soriano's best efforts to propel them to a loftier spot, that is exactly where they ended up. Rather than focus on the lineup (746 runs, 24th overall, 4.69 runs per game) or the rotation (872 runs, 28th overall, 5.38 RPG) or even the bullpen (this was actually decent before half of it ended up in Cincinnati). Instead, the focus will be on a few of the key moments from the Cincinnati season involving trades, which there were certainly plenty of.
Let's start with the little deal and move on to the more significant ones. Livan Hernandez, following a series of quality starts that were preceded by a slew of awful ones, was dealt to the Diamondbacks, who at that time were still in the playoff race. The Nationals received a few interesting arms, one of whom was a top pitching prospect for the D'backs in Garrett Mock. Mock was considered a sleeper by many, but he was still napping when the D'backs traded him, and upon his arrival in Harrisburg the only thing that woke up were the opponents bats. Livan wasn't going to help the team in the long run, so it was a deal that was worth making, but considering the D'backs desperation the return was certainly skimpy.
On December 8 of 2005, Alfonso Soriano was dealt to the Nationals from the Rangers in exchange for Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge, and Armando Galarraga. The deal seemed to favor the Rangers highly, as they received a capable fourth outfielder in Sledge, a minor league pitcher, and Brad Wilkerson, who in 2004 was one of the better outfielders in the league. Sledge was included in the package deal with the Padres that brought Adam Eaton to the Rangers, and Galarraga spent the year in the minors.
What ended up happening was probably better than Ole' Leatherpants wildest Soriano fantasy, and that one involved a plumber, a pizza guy and a poor co-ed teen. Soriano hit .277/.351/.560 for the season and was actually a few runs above average with the glove out in left field. He became just the fourth player to hit 40 homeruns and steal 40 bases within the same season, and for awhile it looked like he would make a push at being the first 50/40 guy. It was most likely Soriano's top season, and the only thing I can spin negatively is that Bowden failed to cash in on it properly.
When Brad Wilkerson was able to play for the Rangers, he played poorly. Beset with nagging injuries almost all year, Wilkerson limped to a .222/.306/.422 finish over 95 games before succumbing to shoulder surgery. One thing the Rangers can take solace in is that his power production was vastly improved from 2005, even with the shoulder problems. If healthy in 2007, Wilkerson should be capable of a very productive season for the Rangers. At the moment though, the trade appears to be somewhat of a bust, although it's tough to second guess it considering Soriano's past performances, not to mention what his future may hold.
Bowden's failure came at the trade deadline, where he did one of two things. He either A) failed to negotiate a significant trade of Soriano for prospects, even though there were numerous near-deals reported or B) decided that trading Soriano was a mistake, and re-signing him was more helpful for the future of the beleaguered franchise. The first option is a significant mistake, but it clearly occurs throughout the trade process. Look no further than the Boston Red Sox in just this past year, where they almost made somewhere around 37 significant trades, and ended up completing none of them. Bowden had some deals that you would have to be out of your mind to turn down in exchange for Soriano, as Joe Sheehan detailed immediately following the deadline.
Option B is even more worrisome, and I'll quote Sheehan for this, since I can't think of anyone more effective at this sort of thing than he:
Even that's not really the choice. There's nothing stopping Bowden from trading two months of performance that do nothing but hurt his team's draft position next year and maybe drive some small amount of money into the team's coffers, then chasing Soriano this winter! You're betting the small chance that he'll sign with his new team before hitting the market, but you're getting back two pre-arb players, one who bats third and the other who could be your #2 starter right now.
Rumors circulated this past week that Soriano rejected a five-year, $70 million contract offer from the Nats. The team denied these reports, but if it is true, then Bowden screwed the Nats. Need I remind you that the new ownership group already approved Bowden as the actual general manager now, rather than just that guy appointed by MLB to run the Nats.
Not all was bad for the Nats in the land of trades though, as Bowden managed to fleece Wayne Krivsky out of not one, but two starting position players. Considering Bowden's past track record -- and Krivsky's other trades/obsessions in his first year on the job -- I have to assume that this had more to do with Krivsky's desperation than Bowden's skill as a negotiator. You all know the story, so I won't rehash it, but the fact that longtime Reds hitting coach Chris Chambliss was fired following the season baffles me. Shouldn't Krivsky get the axe for trading Chambliss' hitters? Don't you think Chambliss deserves some of the credit for being there when Scott Hatteberg, Rich Aurilia and Brandon Phillips all turned in their best offensive campaigns in awhile? No? Well, ok. This is the mind that was involved with the trade negotiations; I don't want people to get the wrong idea and think Bowden was all of a sudden shrewd, although I'm not sure anyone who reads this site would be of that mindset. If it was a moment of glory, it was certainly singular, and all the happy, fuzzy feelings created by it were quickly dispelled by the retaining of one Alfonso Soriano just a few weeks later.
This was also Frank Robinson's final season as Expos/Nationals manager, as he was notified by the club of their decision to move on without him before the season ran its course. Robinson has never been known as a top-rate manager, but he will most likely stick around the game in some other capacity. Jeff Sackmann suggests that he take on a job as a hitting coach, but I feel he'll end up in Major League Baseball's offices again, if anything.
Outside of acquiring Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez -- who despite his defensive problems and lapses at the plate is the best shortstop the Nationals have acquired in their short history -- the season was just...bleh. Soriano was excellent at the plate and useful in the field, but his true value resided in the ability to flip him to a contender ripe with prospects for the picking. Jim Bowden failed at doing this, and now instead of taking the draft picks this organization so desperately needs, the plan is to lock up Soriano for the long-term. The fans may have been enamored with their star performer in his first year, but the fannies won't keep coming to the stadium to see one guy. Fans want to see a successful team, and Bowden has pushed back the earliest date for success by keeping Soriano around. Next year won't be much different than 2006 considering the weak free agent class, and they are already in one of the most competitive divisions around. Essentially, 2006 made a bleak future that much less promising, and that just isn't fair to Nats fans.