Nats sources say GM’s job in jeopardy

VIERA, Fla.

Jim Bowden’s tenure as general manager of the Washington Nationals, a position he has held since the franchise relocated from Montreal more than four years ago, could be down to its final days.

According to team and league sources, a portion of the Nationals’ ownership group is pushing for Bowden to be fired by the end of the weekend, citing an ongoing federal investigation of his dealings with prospects in the Dominican Republic as well as the club’s overall struggles over the last two years.

No final decision has been made about Bowden’s future, those sources said, and he continues to have a handful of supporters within ownership, most notably principal owner Mark Lerner.

But with the club having cut ties with the employees most directly associated with its Dominican operation - Jose Rijo and Jose Baez were fired Thursday - attention has shifted to Bowden and his fate.

Nationals employees said they are working under the assumption that the GM ultimately won’t survive and they expect a change will be made.

Team president Stan Kasten spoke to the media for more than 10 minutes Thursday about the Rijo and Baez firings and a complete overhaul of the club’s Dominican operation but wouldn’t answer questions about other subjects, including Bowden’s standing.

“I am supporting - and continue to support - everyone who works for the Nationals,” Kasten said. “That’s not lip service. I sincerely mean that. Having said that, there are many things going on behind the scenes that you all aren’t privy to yet. When I’m able to talk to you about things, I will.”

Multiple sources familiar with Washington’s ownership said members of the group, including managing principal owner Ted Lerner, considered firing Bowden at the end of last season. The Nationals lost a major league-worst 102 games last year and released several veteran players to whom Bowden gave large contracts. But Mark Lerner, who forged a friendship with Bowden from the time the two met in 2005, stood up for the GM and helped save his job.

Bowden’s ultimate fate, those sources said, will depend on whether Mark Lerner relents to pressure from the rest of ownership. The group inherited Bowden upon gaining control of the franchise from Major League Baseball in 2006.

If a change is made, both team and league sources expect the Nationals to promote assistant GM Mike Rizzo to Bowden’s position on an interim basis. That would allow ownership time to evaluate Rizzo’s performance, conduct a full search for a permanent replacement and maintain some continuity in the front office in advance of the June amateur draft.

Washington holds both the first and 10th overall picks in the draft, and the scouting department and front office already have begun intense preparations for the event.

“There’s no question and no secret we’re placing a lot of attention on the major league draft,” Kasten said Thursday in discussing a shift away from international scouting this year.

The uncertainty involving Bowden’s job comes in the wake of a scandal involving a Dominican prospect who falsified his identity and fooled the Nationals into giving him a $1.4 million signing bonus. That player, who upon his signing in July 2006 claimed to be 16-year-old Esmailyn Gonzalez, has since been discovered to be Carlos David Alvarez Lugo and is four years older than originally believed.

Rijo was the team executive most closely affiliated with Gonzalez’s signing. The former special assistant to Bowden was the first from the organization to discover the player and helped broker his signing along with street agent and longtime friend Basilio Vizcaino.

Rijo was asked to take a leave of absence Saturday and returned to his home in the Dominican Republic. The team informed him Thursday morning that he had been fired. Kasten wouldn’t say whether he has evidence Rijo was in involved in forging Alvarez’s identity. Rijo has maintained his innocence.

“It’s just not a subject I’m going to touch,” Kasten said. “I did become convinced with what I had learned that it was time for us to finally go ahead and cut that cord.”

Also fired were Baez, manager of the Nationals’ Dominican program, as well as the entire coaching and administrative staffs at the San Cristobal facility owned by Rijo. The Nationals, with Rizzo running the show on-site, moved all their players and equipment out of the facility Thursday and will relocate next week to another complex in Boca Chica.

Fernando Ravelo, GM of the successful Tigres de Licey of the Dominican Winter League, will take over the operation.

“I’ve taken the action that I think is appropriate for this problem, both to deal with the problem and to fix the problem,” Kasten said. “I think we’ve accomplished both by doing this.”

Rijo and Bowden are also the subjects of an ongoing federal investigation into the reported skimming of signing bonuses given to Latin American prospects by employees of several MLB teams. On its Web site, Sports Illustrated reported this week that the FBI is investigating Bowden’s actions dating to 1994, when he served as GM of the Cincinnati Reds.

Bowden said earlier this week that he is “innocent of all wrongdoing,” but the specter of the investigation, which first became public last summer, has chafed members of the Nationals’ ownership group and convinced some that the GM should be fired.

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