- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

One thing about Jim Bowden: He certainly keeps his eye on the prize.

Shortly after he became the general manager of the Nationals, Bowden talked about how he would love to get one of the outfield jewels he acquired in his days with the Reds, players like Adam Dunn, Wily Mo Pena or Austin Kearns.

He fulfilled that desire yesterday in a stunning trade that brought Kearns, shortstop Felipe Lopez and right-handed pitcher Ryan Wagner — all players Bowden acquired with the Reds — from Cincinnati in exchange for relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, shortstop Royce Clayton, infielder Brendan Harris and minor league pitcher Daryl Thompson.

Bowden didn’t just get his prize. He stole it.

With this deal, Bowden sped up the player development plan touted by incoming Nats president Stan Kasten by acquiring two established, young major league players.

“This gives us a real good nucleus of young players in their mid-20s, along with Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson and Brian Schneider,” Bowden said. “This trade wasn’t made for today or tomorrow. This trade was made for the long run.”

The long run may not be as long as initially thought.

This deal makes it plausible that the Nationals will be in a position to compete when their new ballpark opens in 2008 — provided Bowden makes the right moves between now and the July 31 trading deadline.

Both Kearns and Lopez are 26, and both already have impressive records.

Kearns is hitting .274 with 21 doubles, 16 home runs and 50 RBI in 87 games, well on his way to putting up career numbers. Last season he posted career highs in home runs with 18 and RBI with 67. He batted .315 in his rookie year in 2002.

Lopez is hitting .268 with 14 doubles, nine home runs, 30 RBI and 23 stolen bases in 85 games. Last year, his first full season as a starter, he hit 23 home runs, drove in 85 runs, hit 34 doubles and scored 97 runs while batting .291. He was named to the All-Star team and won the Silver Slugger Award for National League shortstops.

Pardon me, but to get two position players of this caliber for a couple of middle relievers is like stealing the prize. A good middle reliever can be acquired a lot easier than a 20-home run shortstop and a potential 100-RBI outfielder on the verge of their prime years. Every failed starting pitching prospect is a potential middle reliever.

The Reds desperately needed relief pitching in order to compete the rest of this season, and they must think they can make up the loss on offense. But this was not a value-for-value trade. This was need for value. The Reds need relief pitching.

Bowden, you’ll notice, didn’t cite Alfonso Soriano as a member of the team’s nucleus. Soriano’s no kid, but he’s 30 years old — that certainly still should qualify him as nucleus status.

Bowden did not directly address suggestions that Soriano would be traded, saying they are “very pleased” to have him on the team. But Bowden did say he was “not going to promise anything between now and August 1. Anything we can do to make our organization better in the long run, we will do that.”

Soriano, though, is the key to the rest of the development puzzle: pitchers, whether they are young pitchers in the majors or prospects. The Angels, probably the team that most covets a big hitter like Soriano, have a supply to offer.

And the Nationals already have a young player — though not as gifted as Soriano — to add to the nucleus.

Kory Casto, a former third base prospect who has moved to the outfield this season, should ease the pain of losing Soriano. Casto has been the most productive hitter in the past two seasons in the Nationals entire system. He likely will get the call to replace Soriano.

The 24-year-old Casto was just named Eastern League Player of the Month for June after hitting .344 with seven doubles, seven home runs, 29 RBI, 21 runs, a .461 on-base percentage and a .667 slugging percentage in 25 games with Class AA Harrisburg.

Last year, Casto was named the Nationals Minor League Player of the Year after a season in which he hit 22 home runs, drove in 90 runs and posted a .290 average.

Casto in left field, Kearns in right. Johnson at first, Lopez at short. Zimmerman at third, Schneider behind the plate. That’s not a bad nucleus. But without pitching, it is incomplete. That will cost more than a couple of middle relievers and minor leaguers.

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