- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 1, 2009

If the Washington Nationals picked anybody’s pocket with the trades of reliever Joe Beimel and first baseman Nick Johnson on Friday, they are first-class grifters.

The Nationals sure don’t appear to have gotten value for either player. The club obtained three minor league pitching prospects - none with a winning record and one coming off Tommy John surgery.

Of course, Ryan Mattheus (29-40 with a 5.17 ERA in five minor league seasons) and Robinson Fabian (15-26 with a 5.64 ERA in five seasons) were stuck in the Colorado Rockies’ organization, which reached the World Series two years ago. Mattheus had ligament replacement surgery last month.

And, of course, Aaron Thompson (22-34, 4.00 ERA in five seasons) languished in the Florida Marlins’ system, which seems to produce prospects at the same pace as the old Montreal Expos.

Surely all three will improve once the Nationals’ brain trust gets its hands on them.

Beimel and Johnson were in the final months of their contracts, and the Nationals needed to get something for them, even if only a box of bats.

The presence of those two players wasn’t going to affect where the Nationals finish this year, and their absence might simply make a bad, bad season a little worse. And if the Nationals love either player, they can sign him in the offseason.

But three pitchers? The so-called plan to bring glory to the Nationals calls for young pitching prospects, but have you looked at the minor league system lately? The system has no position players remotely close to the major league level - only long shots and disappointments at best.

You have to go down to phenom catcher Derek Norris at Class A Hagerstown to find a position player considered a bona fide future major leaguer.

But when closing time arrived at 4 p.m. - the trading deadline - the Nationals had to pull the trigger and hope they get as lucky as they did several years ago when they traded Mike Stanton to the San Francisco Giants for a prospect named Shairon Martis. Martis, however, was 19 when he was traded, not nearly ripe. None of the three pitchers Washington got Friday is younger than 22.

So goodbye to Joe Beimel, who brought order to a chaotic bullpen and had a great Johnny Cash walk-in song. And goodbye to Nick Johnson, who was beloved for his hitting and bemoaned for his inability to stay healthy.

None of these trades, though, will affect Nationals fans as much as the Philadelphia Phillies’ trade for last year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, Cliff Lee. Lee has come a long way since he was a prospect traded by the Expos in 2002. In fact, he has become the guy he was traded for - the veteran ace brought in to help a team to the playoffs and the World Series.

In 2002, Omar Minaya was the general manager of the Expos - then owned by Major League Baseball - and his team was competing for a wild-card spot when he traded three prospects to Cleveland for a veteran pitcher - in this case, Bartolo Colon.

Colon pitched well for the Expos, winning 10 games in the final three months. But the Expos couldn’t clinch the wild card, and Colon was traded after the season to the Chicago White Sox for two no-names, an aging Orlando Hernandez and cash.

Minaya parlayed his tenure with the Expos into what is now a tenuous job as general manager of the New York Mets, but this trade was a disaster. Minaya gave up Lee and prospects Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips - perhaps the worst trade in the past 20 years.

Entering Friday night’s first start with the Phillies, Lee had an 83-48 career record and won the AL Cy Young last year with a 22-3 record and a 2.54 ERA.

Sizemore is a three-time All-Star center fielder and leadoff hitter for the Indians who last year hit 33 home runs, drove in 90 runs, stole 38 bases and scored 101 times.

Phillips, later dealt to Cincinnati, has been one of the best second basemen in the National League, a Gold Glove winner who in 4 1/2 full seasons has hit 90 home runs, driven in 354 runs and scored 345 times.

Lee and Phillips would have just become arbitration eligible when the franchise moved to the District for the 2005 season, and Sizemore was just coming off his rookie year. All three conceivably could have been on the roster when the Lerner family took over in 2006.

Much of this is painfully old news for Nationals fans, but that’s the point: The presence of Lee on the roster of a division opponent will be a regular reminder of the trade that helped contribute to the state of baseball in the District today.

The Nationals added three new names to the organization Friday: Mattheus, Fabian, Thompson.

If there is a Cliff Lee in the bunch, consider someone’s pocket picked.

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