Last Thursday morning the newest member of the Nationals, Preston Wilson, arrived at the visitors' clubhouse in Milwaukee's Miller Park bleary-eyed and a bit dazed. The centerfielder was still digesting his trade from Colorado, and he had awakened at 4:30 a.m. to make a 6:30 flight to join his new team. Upon arriving at the ballpark, Wilson poked his head into the office of Washington manager Frank Robinson, who welcomed him by bellowing, "So what took you so long?"
The punchless Nationals, who at week's end held a game and a half lead over the Braves in the National League East despite being tied for last in the majors in runs scored, have been trying to acquire a power hitter like Wilson. Washington interim general manager Jim Bowden pursued Wilson for two months before landing him last week for sinkerballer Zach Day and minor league outfielder J.J. Davis. (The Rockies will pay all but $2 million of Wilson's $12.5 million salary this year, after which he becomes a free agent.)
As Reds G.M. from October 1992 through July 2003, Bowden developed a reputation as a bold, aggressive deal-maker, and he hopes to make more moves before the July 31 trade deadline. "Pitching is the focus now. If there's a Number 1 starter that we can get, we're going to get him," Bowden said on Saturday night, without naming the pitchers he coveted. "If there's a top reliever available to add depth to our bullpen, which has been our strength, we'll try to get him. We're going to do everything we can to keep improving."
That mind-set is a welcome change from the last three years when the Expos, operated by Major League Baseball, weren't able to make big moves because of severe budget constraints. "[The Wilson trade] isn't a move this franchise would have come close to making the last couple years," says outfielder Brad Wilkerson, who broke into the majors with Montreal in 2001 and made the transfer to Washington. "But with our big home-attendance numbers at RFK Stadium and the high revenues we're creating, you could see a deal like this coming."
Wilson, who hit 36 homers and had a league-leading 141 RBIs with Colorado in 2003, missed 98 games last season because of knee injuries. He says he's fully recovered and looked it in his first at bat as a National on Thursday afternoon, slugging his 16th homer of the season in a 4-2 loss. "[In Colorado] players didn't believe they had a chance to win every night," says Wilson, who was hitting .259 with 49 RBIs through Sunday. "From the moment I walked into the [Nationals] clubhouse, I felt an expectation of winning."
The addition of a player like Wilson became even more pressing for Washington after the club's second-leading hitter, first baseman Nick Johnson, was sidelined indefinitely with a bruised right heel on June 26. While Wilson will help fill the void, he still strikes out a lot (ninth in the league with 81 K's) and will miss hitting at Coors Field, where he piled up approximately 60% of his home runs and RBIs since the start of the 2003 season.
"Yes, he's going to strike out, and he's going to go 1 for 4 a lot," says Bowden. "But hopefully that 1-for-4 night is going to [include] a home run or a three-run double. That kind of potential is something we've lacked. Adding Wilson was just one piece to the puzzle, and hopefully we'll add more pieces in the weeks to come."