Nats GM in trouble, Rox on the block, pitchers who'll get paid
Embattled Nationals general manager Jim Bowden still appears to have the support of his bosses, who blame others for problems that have beset Bowden and the club in recent days, according to people who have spoken to the leadership of the last-place club.
Bowden's job status would figure to remain uncertain longterm under the current conditions, which include the team's worst-in-baseball 45-83 record. But for now, his bosses are backing him on key issues in conversations with other top baseball people. Those issues include both the failure to sign No. 1 draft choice Aaron Crow and reports that Bowden is being investigated in baseball's scout skimming scandal.
Nationals higherups are blaming the failed Crow negotiations squarely on Crow's advisers, the Hendricks brothers, according to people familiar with their thinking. Nationals people maintain that the Hendricks brothers failed to respond to the team's offers for the University of Missouri right-hander until three days before the deadline, and that when they finally did respond, the Hendrickses sent an outrageous $9 million, take-it-or-leave-it proposal.
Furthermore, Nationals people say the demand wasn't lowered until 11:44 p.m. on deadline day, 16 minutes before the deadline, and when they did, they were still seeking $4.4 million. And that they only lowered their request to a still-way-above-market $4 million at the buzzer. So to Bowden's bosses, Crow is a member of the independent Forth Worth Cats solely because of his agents' hardball tactics.
It's hard to know for sure who's to blame in the breakdown of the Crow negotiations, though it appears that the Hendricks were playing extreme hardball. Some Nationals people have told others they are embarrassed to have even offered Crow $3.3 million, which is about what the Orioles paid Brian Matusz, a much higher first-round pick. Nats people believe the Hendrickses were trying to steal a page out of the Scott Boras playbook. That's a fine playbook. But they appear to have overdone it. (Boras' first-round clients all signed, except Gerrit Cole, a high schooler who's said by sources to be from a wealthy family that didn't need the money and who followed his dad's sound advice to go to college.)
Meanwhile, key Nationals people are blaming the attention being given to Bowden in the scout skimming scandal on erroneous press reports. Bowden's bosses seem to be under the impression that baseball is talking to every team about the scout skimming scandal, not just the Nats and a handful of other teams, and that Bowden was only interviewed regarding a past employee.
Ultimately, the scout skimming situation could prove much more problematic for Bowden -- although MLB doesn't have the goods on Bowden and may well find nothing to tie him to the scandal. But people familiar with the investigation tell SI.com that Bowden is indeed under investigation, that it's "completely false'' that Bowden was only asked about previous employees and that the Nationals are one of "six-to-eight'' teams currently being looked at. And contrary to what top Nationals people seem to believe, the FBI and MLB investigators aren't taking a scattershot approach and are "going where the information takes them.''
The Nationals owners, the Lerners, are said by other owners to be "sweet people'' who appear to be showing remarkable faith in their general manager. And perhaps they should be credited for their loyalty. But from here, it may also be a case of bad taste. While they are showing confidence in Bowden, they'd be better served placing their faith in club president Stan Kasten, the accomplished baseball man who along with John Schuerholz built the Braves dynasty. Kasten came to the Lerners as an arranged marriage set up by MLB powers, including commissioner Bud Selig. But while Kasten had all the power of a president in Atlanta, he is said by people familiar with the situation to be frustrated by the need to have approval for just about any move he makes in Washington.
As for Bowden, a person is innocent until proven guilty, of course, and all Bowden is guilty of to this point is a string of baseball mistakes that appear to have left the Nationals years from contention, from the failure to sign the talented Crow to acquiring players of questionable character such as Elijah Dukes to locking up not one but two first basemen with chronic health issues (Nick Johnson is injury prone while Dmitri Young's diabetes is no small concern) to fielding a team with only one major-league average position player (third baseman Ryan Zimmerman).
Several competing GMs criticized the Nationals for trading productive reliever Jon Rauch in a market bereft of bullpen stars for second-base prospect Emilio Bonifacio, a speed and glove man who one scout said "will struggle with the breaking ball.'' But it's early, and Bonifacio is said by those who know him to be a "great kid.''
Nats people are downplaying the defection of Crow, saying that since their lost first-round pick will be replaced by a similar one next year, that's not such a big deal. However, any delay does hurt the team that has wisely emphasized their drafts and player development (they signed their first 20 picks last year, and went over slot on rounds two through five this year). As one competing executive said, "The Nationals need whatever they can get.''
But that is all nitpicky stuff compared to what MLB is investigating. Nothing's been proven yet, and it's still difficult to fathom that a baseball GM who makes a high six-figure salary could possibly be so foolish to embroil himself in this mess. It's quite possible that Bowden isn't involved or that nothing may ever be proven regarding Bowden. But make no mistake, no matter what Nationals people believe, baseball is looking into it.
Could Helton join Holliday on trading block?
The Rockies already were expected to be at the center of trading activity this winter with their likely shopping of superstar outfielder Matt Holliday, who may prove too pricey for them. While the Rockies were likely to try one last time to lock up Holliday, they understand their chances to do so remain slim after last spring's aborted efforts.
Holliday's expected availability should cause a feeding frenzy reminiscent of what preceded the Miguel Cabrera trade last winter.
But Holliday might just be the beginning of a Rockies makeover.
People familiar with their thinking say they believe the Rockies may also entertain offers for longtime star Todd Helton -- that is, provided Helton can return this year to show his back is healthy. Helton has been on the disabled list with a lower back strain since June 3 and isn't expected back when he's eligible Sept. 3.
If Helton can return, he'd create a logjam at the corner infield spots.
The conventional wisdom has been that Garrett Atkins could hit the block along with Holliday. But the Rockies may like how things have gone in Helton's absence. They could easily first try to deal Helton instead.
Rookie Ian Stewart has played a brilliant third base and Atkins has moved over to play a solid first base. Optimally, the youth-oriented Rockies probably would prefer that first-third combination going forward. While Colorado appears to be suffering from some year-after effects this year, they do posses a superb young nucleus and don't want to break it up.
Helton's backloaded $141.5-million, nine-year contract which has $56.9 million remaining through 2011 means the Rockies would have to seriously subsidize it should they find a taker. They've talked to the Angels and Red Sox in the past about Helton.
But while a trade for Helton, who was batting .266 with seven homers, may not be easy, one benefit to trying to move Helton this winter could be a large number of large-market teams in the market for a first baseman, possibly including the Mariners, Yankees, Mets and maybe even the Angels if they fail to re-sign Mark Teixeira.
Thanks to all the e-mailers who pointed out I was incorrect saying Epstein wore his Gorilla disguise while re-entering the Red Sox front office three winters ago. Of course, it occurred while he was exiting. When else to wear a monkey suit?