- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The dejected look on Jim Bowden’s face said it all: As much as the Washington Nationals general manager would like to acquire pitching before he leaves the winter meetings, he’s just not finding willing trade partners.

“We certainly have had plenty of meetings and plenty of discussions,” Bowden said after a third straight fruitless day at the Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort. “All it takes is somebody to say OK. But I’m not going to predict that [it will happen].”

Not that Bowden hasn’t been trying every creative avenue he can come up with to pull something off. The Nationals GM has been perhaps more creative than any of his 29 counterparts this week, twice spearheading three-way trade discussions that fell through.

He engaged the Red Sox and Giants in convoluted discussions that would have sent Manny Ramirez to San Francisco, Chad Cordero to Boston and brought a top young starting pitcher to Washington before that proposal fell by the wayside. And word emerged yesterday about a proposed three-way trade with the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers that would have landed right-hander Rodrigo Lopez in a Nationals uniform but never came through.

According to baseball sources, the Orioles believed they were on the verge of wrapping up a deal to acquire outfielder Marcus Thames from the Tigers, with Lopez (a career 60-61 pitcher) going from Baltimore to Washington and an unnamed Nationals player going to Detroit.

Bowden didn’t comment on the proposal last night, but outfielder Ryan Church appears to have been the most likely candidate to be included. The Tigers are seeking a left-handed bat, and the Nationals have let it be known that Church is available.

Lopez, who went 9-18 and made $3.75 million last season, wouldn’t seem a likely target for the Nationals, who have said they don’t plan to spend money on veteran pitchers who don’t figure into the club’s long-term plans.

But Bowden is desperate to improve a starting rotation that at the moment features John Patterson and four giant question marks, and Lopez at least would give Washington a known (albeit a little pricey) commodity.

That said, the Nationals still hadn’t consummated any trades last night despite Bowden’s best efforts. He has been particularly aggressive in trying to deal Church with the Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and others all interested, according to baseball sources.

All of those teams, however, appear to view Church as a fallback option should other proposed deals fall through, so the chances of a trade being finalized before Washington’s front office heads home today seems unlikely.

“For the most part, I think it’s going to go on into January because of the amount of free agents that are left and the amount of dollars that are being spent,” Bowden said. “Most teams would much rather buy a free agent than have to give up anything right now. …

“I don’t think it’s shelving it. I think it’s just continuing the dialogue until everybody’s Plan A, B, C and D fails, and they’re ready to do E.”

With a last-minute trade unlikely, the Nationals’ best hope for acquiring someone before the meetings end is via this morning’s Rule 5 draft. Washington has the sixth selection, and Bowden said he plans to take at least one unprotected player who could help the club next season.

The field of available minor leaguers is thinner than usual because of changes to the draft’s rules that keep more players protected, but the Nationals likely will be able to acquire a young pitcher for $50,000. That player must remain on the 25-man roster the entire season or else be offered back to his original club for $25,000.

“I think there will be less people drafted in this major league portion than there have been the last four or five years,” Bowden said. “I think if we were picking late in this draft, we wouldn’t be picking, either. But because we’re relatively early … it gives us a much better chance to participate.”

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