Saturday, November 5, 2005

The Washington Nationals made a move this week, trading Vinny Castilla to the San Diego Padres for pitcher Brian Lawrence.

But the deal that took place this week that could have the biggest impact on the Nationals — and should have Washington baseball fans grinding their teeth — is the one that took place in Philadelphia.

The Phillies signed Pat Gillick to be their general manager. He could have been the Nationals general manager. He should have been the Nationals general manager.

Instead, now the Nationals have to compete not just with John Schuerholz in Atlanta, but Gillick in Philadelphia as well — the two best GMs of their time.

Last year, when Major League Baseball was considering hiring a general manager to run the Nationals, Gillick made it clear he wanted to be a candidate, even under the uncertain conditions facing the team.

But baseball never gave him a call (I suspect because it would have been throwing salt in Orioles owner Peter Angelos’ wounds), and instead hired Jim Bowden.

Now, I was hard on Bowden when he arrived, welcoming him to town by saying baseball blew it by not offering the job to Gillick instead.

Bowden did an admirable job this year with this team. There was none of the drama that accompanied his tenure in Cincinnati. He seemed like someone who learned from his mistakes. He has been hammered by signing Cristian Guzman to a four year, $16.8million contract. But a veteran shortstop was considered a priority for this team, and David Eckstein, Orlando Cabrera and Omar Vizquel weren’t going to come here, which left Bowden with few options — though four years may be pretty tough to explain.

Still, he worked well with manager Frank Robinson and managed to keep a roster together that competed in the tough National League East until the last week of the season.

All that said, it doesn’t change anything. Gillick is the gold standard for GMs. He has won in more places than Schuerholz and through a variety of methods. He built an expansion team in Toronto through a strong player development system and trades that won five division titles and two World Series championships. Then he came to Baltimore and quickly put together a team that reached the American League Championship Series two out of the three years he was there.

In Seattle, after losing Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez, Gillick still put the Mariners in the ALCS in 2000 and 2001. They also tied a major league record with 116 wins in that 2001 season, and the Mariners’ 393 victories during Gillick’s four seasons were the most in baseball.

He would have been a perfect fit for the Nationals, a guy who can put a competitive major league roster together and build a farm system from scratch. He did so in Toronto and as he would have had to with the Nationals, whose player development system is so barren that their minor league pitcher of the year was a 25-year-old Class A pitcher with a losing record this past season.

Instead, he will be fixing the Phillies, a Nationals division rival.

Strangely, the buzz in Washington never had Gillick on the radar screen. There has been this obsession with these intern boys who now run baseball teams, probably because fantasy baseball geeks look at them and see themselves. But they are nothing more than a smoke screen by team owners to call the shots themselves, so they won’t have to deal with long-time baseball people who may know more about the game than they do.

Josh Byrnes, a 35-year-old former Haverford College baseball player who rode the wave of the prep school boy phenomenon, was touted as a candidate to be the Nationals general manager. Thankfully, he got a job as the Arizona Diamondbacks GM earlier this offseason.

Does anyone really think Byrnes is going to tell Jeff Moorad, the team’s managing general partner who began scouting and signing ballplayers more than 20 years ago as an agent, what to do? Does anyone really think that 28-year-old Jon Daniels is going to tell Rangers owner Tom Hicks not to sign a player the owner covets?

Does anyone really think that former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein could tell Larry Lucchino — who mentored Epstein, starting as an intern with the Orioles in 1992, and has been in baseball for 25 years — what to do when it came to baseball decisions? Please. That was what the whole breakup in Boston was about — who was really calling the shots.

If there are any potential Nationals owners drinking the Theo Kool-Aid, they need to swear it off now — unless they are going to get Mike Port, Bill Lajoie, Craig Shipley and Bill James in the deal as well. They were part of the support team that surrounded Theo the Red Sox GM.

If not, all you may be getting is a smart, decent 31-year-old young man. Better brush up on your Bill James abstracts.

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