Friday, October 28, 2005

Still without a permanent owner, the Washington Nationals yesterday extended general manager Jim Bowden’s contract for six more months, ensuring at least some stability for the franchise until it is sold. Bowden in turn made a series of moves to restructure his front-office staff and signed two utility infielders to one-year deals.

Bowden, whose contract was due to expire Monday, is now locked up through April, though there still is no guarantee a new owner will elect to retain him, his staff or any other members of the organization.

Team president Tony Tavares, who has run the franchise since Major League Baseball took over the former Montreal Expos in 2002, said he would have preferred to wait for the club to be sold before making personnel decisions.

“But in the absence of that, I’ve got a baseball team to run,” Tavares said. “Jim can’t run around making decisions without having a position, for all intents and purposes. This gives him a little bit of continuity.”

MLB hopes to put the sale of the Nationals up for a vote among the league’s 29 other owners at its quarterly meeting Nov. 16-17 in Milwaukee, but the process has been slowed by ongoing negotiations between baseball and the city on the lease for the club’s proposed new ballpark.

Bowden, hired a year ago on an interim basis, has had his contract extended twice. Several other clubs had expressed an interest in him for their vacant GM positions in the last month, most notably the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he had always maintained his first choice was to remain in Washington.

“I appreciate the confidence that Tony Tavares, [commissioner] Bud Selig and [MLB president] Bob DuPuy have shown in me,” Bowden said. “I think it’s very important we have a smooth transition into new ownership. And I’m hoping that when the new owners are in place that they want me to continue on as GM. But that will be their decision.”

Bowden has some freedom now to make roster moves — yesterday, he signed 10-year-veteran Damian Jackson and former Baltimore Orioles infielder Bernie Castro to free-agent contracts — but he remains hamstrung in many ways by the team’s unusual situation.

He continues to work under MLB’s budget guidelines — the club’s payroll was at about $58 million at season’s end — and for now likely can’t make the kind of major acquisitions that may be possible once the new owner assumes control.

Bowden’s immediate future may have been resolved, but numerous other Nationals staffers are not in the same boat. Several other employees’ contracts expire Monday, and though all essential personnel will continue to have jobs for the time being, they aren’t assured of anything once the new owner takes over.

In particular, manager Frank Robinson and his coaching staff still have no idea whether they’ll be back in 2006. Both Tavares and Bowden said yesterday they’ll try to hold off making that decision until the club is sold.

“As long as the ownership situation is resolved in a reasonable amount of time,” Bowden said. “We’re hoping to wait for the new owner for many of these decisions. But there may come a time where we can’t wait any longer, and we’ll make the decision and go forward.”

Said Tavares: “We still have time for on-field personnel. I’m making decisions that in my view have to be made now. Anything that I can postpone, I’ll do. But anything critical, I’m acting on.”

For now, that means stabilizing the Nationals’ baseball operations and minor league departments. To that end, Bowden yesterday named Bob Boone interim senior director of player development/assistant GM and Andy Dunn interim farm director.

Boone and Dunn, who both worked for the club last season, will take on the responsibilities previously held by Adam Wogan, who was fired as farm director last week.

Boone, formerly a special assistant to Bowden, will run the baseball side of the minor league operation. The seven-time Gold Glove catcher and former major league manager has long been one of Bowden’s closest confidants.

Dunn, formerly vice president of ballpark operations, will handle all administrative duties. He’s entering his fifth season with the franchise, having spent the first three overseeing the club’s spring training and minor league operations in Viera, Fla.

“[Boone] is a great guy to lead our development department,” Bowden said. “He knows where players are supposed to be played. He knows what drills and programs should be in place to get us better. And from the baseball end of it, he’s really special.

“Andy Dunn complements him extremely well, because Andy is one of the best administrators I’ve been around. You couldn’t ask for two higher-quality people.”

The Nationals also hired Scott Little as minor league field coordinator, a position that has not always been filled under MLB’s stewardship. Little has 10 years experience as a minor league manager with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates. Last season, he managed Class A Vero Beach to the Florida State League’s first-half East Division title.

Jackson, 32, hit .255 with five homers, 23 RBI and 15 stolen bases in 118 games with the San Diego Padres this season. A career .245 hitter with seven organizations, he’ll compete for a utility spot on the Nationals’ roster this spring.

Castro, 26, hit .288 with seven RBI and six stolen bases in 24 games with the Orioles in 2005, his first season in the major leagues.

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