It turned out to be the last “big” trade Jim “Leatherpants” Bowden would ever make before being fired in the wake of the “Smiley” Gonzalez fiasco just prior to the beginning of the 2009 season. The previous November, with the Washington Nationals coming off a dispiriting 100-loss season in the first year in their brand new stadium, Bowden was searching desperately for ways to bring in some “marquee” names and hopefully improve the team. True to his seemingly random wheeler-dealer ways, he did exactly what a rebuilding franchise should not do–traded prospects for the kind of big leaguers who in the best case scenario would improve the team just enough that it wouldn’t get a future high draft pick, but not enough to get them anywhere near playoff contention.
Bowden’s biggest move that offseason was to send two prospects and first year player Emilio Bonifacio to the penny pinching Marlins in exchange for underachieving starting pitcher Scott Olsen and lumbering slugger Josh Willingham. The trade largely turned out to be a wash for both clubs. Olsen somehow pitched even worse for the Nats than he had for the Fish, and was out of the league following his two-year Nats’ tenure at the ripe young age of 26. Willingham hit 40 home runs in two seasons as a Nat and became a fan favorite, but had trouble staying healthy and was dealt to Oakland a year prior to becoming eligible for free agency. The worst part is that the swap didn’t help the Nats at all in the short run as they endured their second consecutive 100 loss season even with Olsen and Willingham on board.
On the Marlins’ side, the speedy Bonifacio had four low cost, up-and-down seasons before being part of their blockbuster, cost-cutting, November 2012 trade that sent seemingly half their roster to the Blue Jays. As for the two prospects, pitcher P.J. Dean apparently blew out his arm almost immediately because he never logged an inning in the Marlins’ minor league system. The other player, high school third baseman Jake Smolinski, who’d been the Nats’ second 2nd round pick the previous year (the first 2nd rounder was a pitcher by the name of Jordan Zimmermann), didn’t have the defensive skills to stick as an infielder, nor the power numbers to be successful as a corner outfielder. At the end of 2013 season he was granted minor league free agency.
Funny thing, though, about high school draftees–when they reach that six-year minor league free agency mark, they are still only in their mid-20s and haven’t yet hit their career prime. Smolinski, who was drafted the same class with the Nats’ Steven Souza and is the exactly same age, finally got his shot at The Show this year, mainly because he’d been lucky enough to subsequently sign with a Texas club that lost nearly every starter to injury.
Smolinski got his chance because he elevated his OPS above .800 for the first time since 2009, helped in part by hitting 10 home runs in just under 300 at bats. Called up to the Rangers in July, Smolinski made the most of his opportunity. Despite getting injured himself and spending time on the DL, he batted a robust .349 with a .903 OPS in 92 plate appearances. Small sample size? Certainly. But also numbers guaranteed to get him a good long look next spring training as the Rangers try to rebuild from this season’s debacle.
The lesson here is one that seems so simple yet in the real world is so difficult for so many baseball General Managers: when rebuilding don’t trade prospects for veterans who won’t be around when the team becomes good again. I realize it’s easy for me to say when I don’t have impatient fans or an uptight owner breathing down my neck demanding immediate success. Fortunately, the Nats replaced Bowden with a GM who knows how to make good trades–and as it turned out that probably happened just in time to save the likes of Jordan Zimmermann from being shipped off elsewhere. Thank you, Smiley Gonzalez.