I'd take your calls, Jim. But I'd just laugh at the deals you've made. How can this man be one of the 30 best general managers in the sport?
According to Wikipedia, Bowden got his start in baseball because his college roommate's parents were principal owners of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Why he has a job now, I am not quite sure, as his record of public statements and actions paint him as an incompetent buffoon.
The Cincinnati Reds, believe it or not, were a team with a proud tradition when Bowden took the helm at the age of 31 in October of 1992. Baseball's oldest franchise, fresh off a World Series victory in 1990, still had Hall-of-Famer Barry Larkin in his prime at shortstop, a healthy Jose Rijo as a starting fireballer along with Tim Belcher and Greg Swindell, and the Nasty Boys to close it out - both Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble recorded 25+ saves in 1992.
Bowden's first major move was to trade away Ohioan Paul O'Neill to the Yankees for Roberto Kelly - O'Neill would go on to win 4 Championships as a Yankee right fielder. He dealt Norm Chalrton to Seattle for Kevin Mitchell - (hands up, Mets fans, which of you remembers Kevin Mitchell in Seattle?) , and let a little-known pitcher by the name of Trevor Hoffman go in the expansion draft to the Florida Marlins. He also signed former Twin and Pirate John Smiley to a 5 year deal to replace the departed Greg Swindell.
The 93 Reds finished 17 wins worse than the 92 Reds, with Bip Roberts losing 100 points off his batting average, Smiley only starting 18 games and finishing with a 5.62 ERA, Rob Dibble lost the strike zone and issued 9 walks per 9 innings. New acquisitions Mitchell and Kelly only combined for 171 games.
Bowden's response for 1994 was strange. He traded promising young catcher Dan Wilson and a young pitcher named Bobby Ayala for Erik Hanson and Bret Boone. He signed sometime closer and remarkably telegenic righthander Jeff Brantley, but most strangely was his signing of Tony Fernandez during spring training - to play 3rd base.
Bowden started getting creative. He traded Kelly to the Braves for Deion Sanders, but unfortunately for Bengals fans, Sanders would not suit up for their dismal football team. He signed Kevin Maas as a free agent - Maas would never play for the Reds, but hey, why not? He signed Ron Gant even though he was out for the season. He selected a little known pitcher named Rick Reed off waivers, and a little known pitcher named Pete Schourek.
And you know what? The Reds were in first place when Donald Fehr and his jackbooted union trampled on the game of baseball in the late summer of 1994. Schourek had gone 7-2 as a long reliever/starter, Brantley had a sub 3.00 ERA as the closer, and Kevin Mitchell had a legendary season that has gone forgotten, a sublime .326/.429/.681. Mitchell would sign in Japan for the 1995 season, and he would only play 131 more games in the major leagues. Hal Morris was hitting .335, and Bret Boone had a higher batting average in 1994 (.320), than he did OBP in 1993 for Seattle (.301).
1995 brought even more success for Bowden, and is probably why he still has a job in baseball today. New acquisition Ron Gant crushed it in his return, slugging .554. Young right fielder Reggie Sanders outhit him, slugging .579. Free agent acquisition Benito Santiago had a .485 SLG, and his left-handed partner Eddie Taubensee had a .491. The rotation was anchored by waiver acquisition Pete Schourek, Smiley had an excellent season, and while the rest of the starters were a mishmash of injured Jose Rijo, Tim Pugh, and some other dross, Jim Bowden gambled at the deadline, making two huge moves. He dealt Deion Sanders and 4 other players to the Giants for Mark Portugal, Darren Lewis, and Dave Burba. He also dealt his top draft pick from 1993, C.J. Nitkowski, to the Tigers for David Wells. Both were the definition of 'league average', but they were better than the options the Reds were falling to - Frank Viola started 3 games for the 1995 Reds.
It is clear in 1996 that while Bowden seems to know how to run a team, he also falls victim to looking at players' baseball cards, for his moves are dripping with nostalgia. Vince Coleman makes his appearance on the 96 Reds. Eric Davis returns to Cincinnati after terrible stints elsewhere. Former Orioles closer Gregg Olson is signed late in spring training. Lee Smith was traded for a month into the season. Mike Morgan showed up. The Reds traded for Kevin Mitchell at the deadline. But the team was purely average at 81-81. Wells was traded in the off-season to Baltimore, and the starting rotation was this: Smiley, Portugal, Burba, Kevin Jarvis, and Roger Salkeld. The former three provided league average starting, but the back half was terrible, and the Reds were 8th in team ERA. Eric Davis won Comeback Player of the Year, but in left field, the Reds got 240 PAs of sub .500 OPS from Eric Owens.
1997: The Reds are 14th in BA, 13th in OBP, 13th in SLG. Hal Morris puts up a sub 700 OPS as the starting 1B, Deion Sanders does the same in center in his return to Cincinnati, Bret Boone the same at second, and Pokey Reese, filling in for the injured Barry Larkin, is sub 600. While the Reds finish 76-86, their Pythagorean record gives them only 69 wins. Bowden's prospects have been either traded away or simply aren't performing, aside from the league average 3B play from Willie Greene. Schourek, once great, is now terrible - the best starter is the young Brett Tomko and his ERA+ of 125 in 19 starts.
1998: Mike Remlinger is moved to the starting rotation. This is all ye need to know. Pete Harnisch is a gamble that works out. Still 4th in the NL Central.
1999: Before the season, here's some nostalgic names that appear: Steve Avery, Carlos Baerga, and Hal Morris. But then there's some big moves: Reggie Sanders is dealt with 2 other players for slugging LF Greg Vaughn. 1B prospect Paul Konerko is moved to Chicago for Mike Cameron. Vaughn is an instant success, smashing 45 HRs, Sean Casey has a 930 OPS, young outfielder Dmitri Young slugs over .500, and the team is 4th in the NL in slugging. As for pitching, the rotation is once again a mismash, but the bullpen is quite effective, including wunderkind Scott Williamson, who wins the Rookie of the Year with 12 relief wins and a 195 ERA+. They finish 2nd in the NL Central. But here's something else that happens - going for an NL Central title, Bowden throws away B.J. Ryan for Juan Guzman's last hurrah in the majors. It works out - Guzman has a 3.03 ERA - but Ryan would go on to be a dominant relief pitcher, while Guzman would give up 8 runs in 1 and 2/3rds in his last major league start.
2000: Bowden puts himself on the map by trading Brett Tomko, Mike Cameron, and Antonio Perez for Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey hits well in his first season but not MVP well - .387/.556 in the juiced-bicep era. The rotation is again a disgrace of league average or worse pitching - Scott Williamson is added to it for 10 starts. The team wins 85 games.
2001: Griffey hurt, no one on the team hits more than 22 home runs, the rotation is a mix of young bad pitchers and old bad pitchers, and they finish 14th in ERA, only Elmer Dessens is over 100 ERA+ as a starter. A young Adam Dunn has a 136 OPS+ - he leads the team in that category.
2002: More of the same. Dunn and a young Austin Kearns look like future stars, but the infield is all league average or worse, and the team is still near the bottom in slugging and OBP. Someone named Jimmy Haynes is the top starter on the Reds, posting 15 wins and making some fantasy baseball player feel good about his life.
2003: Mercurial RF Jose Guillen OPSes over 1.000 in 91 games. Ken Griffey Jr. plays only 53 games, making 1989 Upper Deck afficianados gnash their teeth. The team is a dismal 14th in OBP. Paul Wilson, he of Generation K, emerges from nowhere to be the team's top starter. No starters ERA+ is over 100. Nostalgia name: Todd Van Poppel. Future Nationals on this team: D' Angelo Jiminez, Austin Kearns, Jose Guillen, Felipe Lopez, Wily Mo Pena.
Not surprisingly, this is the point at which Bowden is fired - at mid-season in 2003. Now while B!T has been rather critical of him, it's also quite obvious he's working from a small budget. However, he developed almost no pitchers in the 10 years as general manager of the Reds - only Harang and Scott Williamson are pitchers to be proud of. The big acquisition of Ken Griffey Jr. didn't work out - Griffey was always injured, but even in spite of that, he wasn't that good when he was healthy, and he wouldn't've saved a team with this dismal pitching.
Here is a quote from Bowden defending his tenure as Reds' GM:
"We have to keep [trading]," Bowden said. "It's hard to trade Dave Burba when he's your Opening Day pitcher 24 hours before the game starts, but that's the only way you're going to get a player of Sean Casey's caliber.These quotes demonstrate the problem of Bowden's general managing. Yes, Sean Casey was a very good first baseman, but as a guy whose production relied mostly on singles, his batting average and thus value would wildly fluctuate from season to season. Even then, his OPS+ as a 1B is 110, hovering right around the league average. Bowden had Hal Morris and Sean Casey as his 1Bs almost throughout his entire tenure as general manager, and quite simply both were overvalued commodities, as they would pile up .300 BA seasons without much power.
"It's hard to trade Elmer Dessens, our No. 1 starter, but that's the only way you're going to a get a player of (shortstop) Felipe Lopez's caliber."
Felipe Lopez has evident skill - but his batting in the minor leagues was never all that tremendous (lifetime .279/.340/.430, and probably promoted a little early), and his career reflects that. Throw in Bowden's extreme sense of nepotism - how many players would be traded or released from Cincinnati, only to return - Deion Sanders, Mark Lewis, Kevin Mitchell, Joe Oliver, Benito Santiago, Hal Morris, even Jose Rijo's heartwarming comeback - in team sports, this kind of thinking can be just fine, but in an individualistic sport like baseball, it's merely self-serving and obtuse.
The men who ascend to run baseball teams are, by and large, smart men, and Bowden is no different. Sometimes he's going to make good trades, sometimes he's going to make good free agency signings, and sometimes he's going to find diamonds in the rough. He will draft an Adam Dunn or Aaron Harang, or trade for a Dmitri Young or Paul Konerko. He and his scouts can identify what they think is talent. I don't think it's necessary to go over his moves with the Nationals - all one has to do is look at the team right now. It's a melange of non-slugging players and journeyman starters. Ron Belliard is leading the team in slugging. They will get better next year - Ryan Zimmerman is a legitimate star, and both Lastings Milledge and Wily Mo Pena cannot be THIS bad - but he is once again emphasizing what he sees over the statistics lines, and therefore commits the mortal sin of the general manager - falling in love.