Jim Bowden faced a tough task this past off-season: Build a somewhat respectable lineup out of Ryan Zimmerman and other teams' discarded parts.
To Bowden's credit, he handled this task well. He avoided paying big dollars to any number 3 (or worse) starters, rather than go the K.C. route of paying $11 million for three extra wins he doesn't need anyway. He let Alfonso Soriano walk, rather than sign over the deed to Fort Knox. He fleeced Bill Bavasi out of Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto so that Jose Vidro could block Adam Jones instead of Felipe Lopez.
And in his best move, Bowden waited until Dmitri Young and Ronnie Belliard had nowhere else to play, then signed them for a total of $1.25 million in non-guaranteed salaries. These signings carried almost no downside and a significant upside, in the form of a convenient three-step plan:
1. Sign veteran to one-year, make-good deal
2. Veteran makes good
3. Team trades veteran to contending team for prospects, or lets him walk at the end of the year and collects draft pick compensation
The Nats got steps 1 and 2 right, but they seem to have hit a snag. Rather than cashing in their chips, they've now inked Young and Belliard through 2009 for $13.5 million guaranteed. Of these moves, I have one question:
I'm sure the Washington fans have grown to appreciate the presence of Dmitri Young, a recovering alcoholic who last year choked a female police officer and was released from the Tigers--a team badly lacking a left-handed impact bat at first base--under mysterious circumstances. Strictly as a player, though, Young is the kind of guy you should take a flier on, but not commit to long-term, especially when your team has no hope of contending before the end of the contract. Billy Beane passed this exam with Frank Thomas last year; Bowden just flunked it.
Belliard's extension is for a lot less money than Young's, practically a write-off in baseball terms, but I still don't like it. Major league GMs (should?) know that second base is a buyer's market right now. Since the end of the 2006 season:
- Marcus Giles was non-tendered by the Braves and given 1 year and $4 million by the Padres
- Adam Kennedy signed for an average annual value under $4 million
- Belliard's only offer was a minor league deal from the Nationals
- Chase Utley, one of the most valuable players in baseball, signed a seven year extension for $41 million less than a washed-up Barry Zito got from the Giants
- Tad Iguchi was traded for a non-prospect, straight-up, to a contending team desperate for second base help
Then you have 2005's "freely available talent" guys like Brandon Phillips, Dan Uggla, Ty Wigginton, et al. The point is that if you want to find a better second baseman than Belliard for a comparable price, it can be done.
But that isn't the most important mistake here. Blowing $13.5 million isn't a big deal for a playoff contender, but that phrase describes the Nationals about as well as does "magic picture that if you stare at it long enough, you see something." The prospects or draft picks the Nationals could have received had the potential to be a part of the next Washington playoff squad. Young and Belliard will not be.
Trading $13.5 million and future playoff chances for a couple of meaningless wins in the present is just dumb. I hope Young and Belliard bring some fans into the new D.C. ballpark, because the Nats' place in the standings certainly will not.