The trade that never happened

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Since we’re fast-approaching the July 31 trade deadline, and since the Cubs happen to be in town right now, I thought this was an appropriate time to revisit one of the most-significant (and most-controversial) decisions Jim Bowden and this organization made with this organization.

It was July 31, 2006, and everyone around baseball expected the Nationals to trade Alfonso Soriano to a contending team in exchange for prospects. Soriano was due to be a free agent at the end of the season, and it seemed unlikely the Nats would re-sign him to a huge contract extension.

But when the deadline came and went with Soriano remaining in a Washington uniform, the debate suddenly raged: Did Bowden make the right move. He (and Stan Kasten, for that matter) insisted at the time that no one made an offer better than the draft picks the Nats would get as compensation if they lost Soriano to free agency.

Well, when the Cubs inked Soriano to an eight-year, $134 million contract that fall, the Nats received two compensation picks in the 2007 draft: the 31st overall selection and the 67th overall selection. Those two picks became Josh Smoker and Jordan Zimmermann.

Zimmermann, as you all know, blossomed into the Nats’ top pitching prospect and has debuted this season in fairly impressive fashion. He’s 3-4 with a 4.50 ERA in 15 starts, but over his last seven starts he’s got a 2.70 ERA. The 23-year-old still has a ways to go, but he obviously looks like a keeper.

Smoker, on the other hand, has not progressed the way the Nats would have hoped. The left-hander, drafted out of a Georgia High School, went 2-5 with a 5.48 ERA in 11 starts for the rookie Gulf Coast League Nationals and low-Class A Hagerstown last season, then underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his throwing shoulder. Smoker is now working his way back from the injury and has made four appearances for the GCL team, working his way up from two innings to five innings in his most recent start. There’s obviously plenty of time for Smoker to make his way back up through the farm system, but it’s fair to say he’s been a major disappointment so far.

So, we know what the Nats got in the end for Soriano as a free agent. But what might they have gotten for him in a trade? Well, I was told in the spring of 2007 that the best offer extended by another club came from the Twins, who offered right-hander Kevin Slowey. The Nats didn’t feel that was enough return for a player like Soriano. Slowey is now in his third full season with the Twins and has gone 26-15 with a 4.39 ERA. He’s 10-3 with a 4.86 ERA this season.

In other words, Slowey is a pretty good, though not great, major-league pitcher. He’s accomplished more than Zimmermann to this point, though I think it’s safe to say Zimmermann has a higher ceiling. And if Smoker does come back from his injury and makes it to the majors some day, the Nats will have gotten two players for Soriano, one of them perhaps the organization’s No. 2 starter for years to come.

So, who would you rather have: Zimmermann and Smoker, or Slowey? It’s probably still too early to make a final call on that one. But I do think we can say definitively that Bowden looks a lot better now holding onto Soriano and getting free-agent compensation than he did at the time.

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Mark Zuckerman

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