By Thomas Boswell
Friday, July 14, 2006; Page E01
In every major personnel decision, the Nationals' goal is to build a coherently constructed pennant contender in three or four years. Sooner is luck. Later is behind schedule. Judge their many moves by that measure and they'll make more sense.
Yesterday, in what may be the first of a cascade of interlocking trades, the Nats unleashed a surprise eight-player deal that sent promising relievers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski to Cincinnati. Few expected either of them, much less both, to leave town for years. In return, the Nats got two proven young veterans from the Reds. Look ahead to 2010. Slugger Austin Kearns and swift Felipe Lopez will be 30 then, in their primes. And they will probably be playing right field and shortstop in Southeast.
Just one day ago, the Washington lineup of the future contained only three near-certain names -- Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson and Brian Schneider. Now, add Kearns and Lopez to the list. If Alfonso Soriano re-signs by July 31, or returns as a free agent in the offseason, Washington might suddenly have six of its eight everyday players in place for its new ballpark era.
So, what happened to all those demands by new ownership for Washington fans to have infinite patience as everyday players were developed? In a blink, two more spots in the everyday lineup are now under the team's control through '08 -- and at an increase in payroll, not a cut. In Lopez, the Nationals have added an '05 N.L. all-star who hit 23 homers with 85 RBI last season and is on pace for 42 steals this year. In Kearns, they have a heart-of-the-order hitter currently on track for 29 homers and 91 RBI whose career OPS is .826 -- one point lower than Soriano's career mark, one point higher than Jose Vidro's.
"The calculus is that we're getting two young guys who will play regularly for us while giving up two pitchers who are in middle relief right now," team president Stan Kasten said. "Yes, we believe in developing pitching and focusing on the draft. But most of all, we believe in taking advantage of opportunity. When it's there, grab it.
"We're going to take our time, but we are not going to waste time."
Everyone must now wait for the next Nats shoe to fall. Washington's bullpen has been frayed from overwork all season. The third new Nat, reliever Ryan Wagner, was the Reds' No. 1 draft pick in '03 but is back in Class AAA and will be of no immediate help. So, which member of the Nats' now-crowded outfield will be traded for pitching before July 21: Soriano or Jose Guillen? Until the next trade -- which must add pitching -- is completed, you can't completely judge this blockbuster.
Having Kearns adds to the Nats' flexibility in trades. But the current Nats bullpen is untenable. Never fear, Jim Bowden's next six trades will make the grand plan clear. This eight-human transaction, which had him talking to Reds GM Wayne Krizsky "nine, 10 or 11 times a day," probably didn't even dent Bowden's July cellphone minutes.
The fun and fascination of this trade for Washington is obvious. The Nats saw a chance to snap up two front-line regulars from a Reds franchise that is desperate to reward its long-suffering fans with a visit to the playoffs. Cincinnati's bullpen absolutely reeks. Now, after trading for closer Eddie Guardado last week and adding the two ex-Nats, Cincinnati looks legit. Smooth old Royce Clayton will actually upgrade their defense.
For this radical improvement in pitching and defense, the Reds gave up the two players who lead their team in at-bats. How could Washington resist snapping up a shortstop with some offensive pop who may steal 30 bases, plus a 245-pound power-hitting outfielder who (any stat freak would attest) probably has another level of offensive improvement somewhere in his future.
However, there's risk for the Nats. Hitters often claim Majewski has the best stuff in the Nats' pen. His command can be erratic; he gets flustered at times, but he could be a top setup man for years. Bray, 23, a William & Mary grad, may become a stellar southpaw at the back end of a bullpen for a decade. Those make hen's teeth look common. That's a lot of present value and high-end future potential to sacrifice. Bowden claims pitching is next to godliness, but has seldom practiced his gospel.
Now, Bowden has added two players he acquired for Cincinnati when he ran the Reds. Both are known for their bats. Ken Griffey Jr. swears by Kearns as an upbeat low-maintenance teammate.
However, both new Nats also have clear flaws. Lopez, who'll bat No. 2 and add speed to the top of the attack, has made 31 errors the last two seasons, compared with 22 for the steady Clayton. As for Kearns, in five seasons he's averaged 99 RBI, 93 runs, 27 homers and 78 walks -- per 600 at bats. The problem: He's never even batted 400 times and has been on the disabled list once in each of the last four seasons. Like the Nats' Nick Johnson, his frequent injuries are not chronic. But you worry. This trade has more spin than a tight slider. If Soriano is traded this month, the Nats' offense will not be left utterly destitute with Lopez and Vidro at the top of the order, followed by Zimmerman, Johnson, Kearns and, perhaps, Guillen. If Soriano is dealt, he'd presumably fetch more in pitching talent than Bray and Majewski. So, netted out, the Nats would have, in a sense, traded for Kearns and Lopez while losing the 30-year-old Soriano -- a player they could try to re-sign as a free agent.
If the Nats are willing to trade Bray and Majewski, two pitchers who were usually considered "keepers" by scouts, then who, aside from Zimmerman, is outside the Nats' trade discussions? Questions beget questions. Is Vidro now safer because Brandon Harris left in this trade? With Kearns aboard, would Guillen be enough to partially restock the bullpen?
What's most delightful is that, at the All-Star Game this week, everybody in baseball gathered in Pittsburgh with possible Washington trades a central topic. A half-dozen Nats names were tossed around constantly. But perhaps not one person ever mentioned Bray, Majewski, Clayton, Harris or minor leaguer Darryl Thompson in any trade rumor. Now, all five are gone.
"Don't try to predict what we'll do. We won't fit in any box," said Kasten, who made Bowden his choice as GM when few expected a quick long-term decision. "Did anybody predict our [$2 million] Dominican signing [of 16-year-old Esmailyn Gonzalez]? Did anybody predict this trade? The only thing predictable is that in the end we intend to accomplish all the things we said we'd do."
Next Friday, the Nats' new owners hold their reopening of RFK. Let's predict: Not all the current Nats will return to see it.