- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On the early May morning when he went on bereavement leave to be with his grandmother before she succumbed to cancer, Chad Cordero was in shambles.

Emotionally, the Washington Nationals closer wasn’t prepared to take the ball in the ninth inning of a one-run ballgame, not when he knew Josie Cordero, 75, was in her final days. His stats — a 4.70 ERA, .338 opponents’ batting average, four blown saves in eight tries — said it all.

Around baseball, observers started wondering whether the 25-year-old right-hander finally was being exposed as a tough-but-vulnerable reliever who didn’t have the physical prowess to make it long term as a major league closer.

Cordero, though, never doubted himself.

“I knew I’d be able to get it back,” he said. “I just didn’t know exactly when. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a season-long thing or whatever. Luckily, it was the first month and a half, and that was it.”

Those agonizing six weeks to open the season are a mere afterthought now, a blip on an otherwise spectacular career. In 33 games since rejoining the club following his grandmother’s death, Cordero owns a 1.65 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .193 against him. He has successfully converted 15 of 17 save opportunities, including his last seven.

“He’s been money in the bank for us,” manager Manny Acta said.

So much so that Cordero now finds himself coveted by contending ballclubs across the sport. One week before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, Nationals general manager Jim Bowden’s cell phone is nearly attached to his ear. Fellow GMs are asking about veteran Dmitri Young. They’re asking about setup man Jon Rauch and outfielder Ryan Church.

And they’re asking about Cordero, which leaves Bowden facing an interesting dilemma: Should a GM trying to build a championship club with young players really consider trading a 25-year-old closer in the prime of his career?

All indications suggest Bowden is, if nothing else, willing to listen to offers. The number of teams who could be interested in acquiring Cordero, either to close or pitch in the seventh or eighth innings, is significant. The New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers all could be in the market for relief pitching.

Executives from those contending clubs should be forewarned before placing a call to Bowden: Cordero isn’t going to come cheap.

Maintaining the same stance he has held for two years when discussing trades for his best players, Bowden is insisting on receiving top prospects in return.

And that’s where things get sticky. Before 2006, big-market teams were more often than not willing to part with their best minor leaguers in exchange for a proven veteran who could help them win immediately. Then last summer’s trade deadline came around, and big-market GMs suddenly refused to give up any top prospects.

Bowden doesn’t know whether the same scenario will play out this year, but he admits several organizations are holding firm in their refusal to deal blue chippers.

“Certainly, there are teams that in the past would have traded prospects that are not going to do that anymore,” Bowden said. “But there are teams that are. Every team literally is different.”

If past experience is any indication, Bowden won’t back down from his demands. He refused to do that a year ago when Alfonso Soriano was the biggest name on the trading block and wound up keeping the 40-40 superstar for the rest of the season before losing him to free agency over the winter.

Cordero’s case differs from Soriano’s in one key manner: Unlike Soriano, Cordero remains under the Nationals’ control for 2½ more seasons. He can’t become a free agent until 2010, so there’s no immediate urgency to deal him.

Interested ballclubs also must consider the financial cost of acquiring Cordero. He’s making $4.15 million in his first year of arbitration-eligibility, and that number will continue to rise each of the next two seasons. Is a contender willing to take on that kind of salary, especially for someone who might be used only as a setup man on a club with an already-established closer?

“There aren’t many clubs that have the ability to do that or are even willing to do it,” an executive from one National League team said yesterday. “I’d be surprised if they trade him.”

Cordero is well aware of the rumors surrounding his name, and in his typical, laid-back fashion, he’s not overly concerned with it.

“It’s the same stuff I’ve been hearing for the last year,” he said. “If it happens, it happens. I’m not going to worry about it too much.”

And it’s not like Cordero has expressed any desire to play elsewhere. He was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 2003, signed with the organization almost immediately, made his major league debut later that summer and in less than four years has already notched the third-most saves in franchise history (110).

This is the only team Cordero has known. And with his mind now at ease and his focus back on baseball, he has no interest in pitching somewhere else.

“This is the organization that gave me my first chance,” he said. “I would love to stay here. I’d love to see that new stadium open, too. I hope that I can stay here. Hopefully, Bowden doesn’t do anything to make me leave.”

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