"We didn't have to trade anybody."

This is what Jim Bowden told Barry Svrluga after the Nats in fact did not trade anyone prior to this afternoon's non-waivers trade deadline. The statement is true, quite literally true.

If the team didn't have to trade Alfonso Soriano, a prospective free agent, one year ago today, then it certainly did not have to trade Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch, who are under club control for another three years. What Bowden said is correct, of course. If the offers out there for Cordero or Rauch were insufficient -- and, from today's deadline coverage, it certainly appeared the Mets were not willing to expand a deal for Cordero -- then Bodes and company were under no compulsion to trade either of the two relievers. A team always has options at the trade deadline, and the Nats were definitely no exception.

Nevertheless, I am vaguely disappointed. I'll get to that feeling in a second, but first I need to put something out in the open, to stipulate it, if you will: it's hard enough to evaluate a trade that's consummated, but it's doubly hard to evaluate a trade that was never made. It's not something that should be too arrogantly done by bloggers -- if such restraint is feasible for bloggers -- because, when the flop hits the fan, we lack a firm grasp of the flop and are obscured by the fan.

Such was the case last year -- has it ever been resolved what exactly the Nats were offered for Soriano? -- and such is largely the case this year. Granted, the details are a bit firmer this time around. Nats.com, for instance, provided the straight dope of what was offered for Cordero. Or at least it appears to be the straight dope, or at least decidedly non-crooked swank:

  • Cordero for Phil Humber: Thanks but no thanks.
  • Cordero for Carlos Quentin: Never on the table.
  • Cordero for Carlos Gonzalez: Asked and answered, and the Snakes said no.
So there.

But wait, there's more! It turns out -- admittedly somewhat inconceivably -- teams were looking at the Nats' prospects. Yeah, I know; the Nats' prospects suck. Except they don't, or at least some of them don't, and a few among them are actually quite promising. Colton Willems and Glenn Gibson are both 19, both doing quite well at Low-A Vermont, and both on the radar of some other clubs, according to Nats.com, according to sources.

Now, progress is nice, but the time is not exactly ripe to go high on the hog here, if you'll pardon the inartfully mixed metaphors. For instance, I submit for your perusal this recent Nats.com article, in relevant part:

Kasten also pointed out Washington's Minor League system is now filled with quality arms, something that was non-existent two years ago. For example, Class A Vermont has three stud pitchers -- Adrian Alaniz, Glenn Gibson and Colton Willems -- who have ERAs under 3.00.
(emphasis added)

Uh, yeah -- filled. Let's see: there's Lannan, who's performed a nifty four-level rise this season; Ballester, who's making fine progress; Mock, who's been injured and disappointing so far but has some untapped potential; and the three guys at Vermont. Yes, I know there are a few guys I didn't mention, but those are the pitchers in the minor league system with the most promise at the moment. (Not to discount from Chico, who's holding his own in the bigs.) Is that a system filled with quality arms? Get off it. It's two guys who have made it through the trials far enough to be on the precipice -- or, in Lannan's case, the recipient of a preliminary look -- of the majors. The Vermont guys are doing great, for sure, but the emphasis should be placed on "doing." They're in medias res, and much closer to the start than the finish; we won't know anything truly significant about them for quite awhile, and that's on the order of years rather than months. "Filled"? No way.

Willfully childish characterizations aside, the general point is that the organization's pitching depth is improving. And, Nats.com reported, other teams wanted a shot at the Vermont guys. This is a time to enhance that organizational depth, not relinquish it.

So, let's say we get to 3:45 this afternoon, fifteen minutes prior to the deadline. And let's say -- and, trust me, I'm just spitfiring here -- some of us are, you know, really pining for some trade news. Where's the trades? Why haven't there been any trades? Is everybody alright over there, because I don't see any trades? Hey, are they going to make any trades? Again, I'm just going through the motions of an exercise here, you know. But let's say we were thinking such things fifteen minutes prior to the deadline. We might have even heard rumors of what was offered, what was rejected, and what was under final, frantic consideration. But I guaran-Nats-an-tee you we wouldn't have known other teams were saying, "Sure, we'll trade; just give us Colton Williems." Or we wouldn't have known -- and, in fact, we didn't know until Bowden's comments after the deadline were passed on -- that the team had a suitor for Dmitri Young that backed off before a trade was consummated. (Hello, Minnesota Twins!) It's hard enough to frame a cogent argument when we have the necessary info placed before us; it's somewhat pointless when we're blind to relevant facts.

Nevertheless, nevertheless . . .

And finally we reach my vague disappointment. The Nats have, by Bowden's own admission, been "treading water" in terms of player development acquisitions for the past month. The problem is that July is normally a pretty good month for player development acquisitions if you're motivated to grab some talent. This isn't to say you can snap your fingers and gobble up a Grade-A prospect or two on demand. You have to have some talent to offer in exchange, and, as Bowden argued, other teams are more reticent to give up top young talent these days. But if you need to enhance your organizational depth -- and, rosy soundbytes aside, this is something the Nats desperately, vigilantly, comprehensively, and tirelessly need to do -- then you have to put in a good faith effort to that end and then some.

Instead, at present, the Nats have received nothing for Ronnie Belliard, nothing for Dmitri Young, nothing for Jon Rauch, and nothing for Chad Cordero. That's a lot of nothing. Granted, the first three guys weren't going to bring in a tremendous stock of talent, but they would have fetched something if the Nats had been willing to sell. Instead, they brought the team nothing.

Again, Bowden is right, and let's be clear about that: Washington didn't need to trade anyone. Rauch and Cordero, as mentioned, are under team control; Belliard and Young, you might have heard, are recent recipients of surprising multi-year deals. There's only one guy who really needs to be traded, but that's Ray King, and he doesn't really need to be traded, not yet. Hello, August 31 deadline.

But still, but still . . .

This isn't like last year, when the Nats knew (some new CBA trepidation aside) that they'd get two picks for Soriano. The Nats have one prospective free agent now, and that's King. I haven't exhaustively researched the matter, but I'm presuming he won't bring any compensation to the dance. And that's that. No deadline prospects, no compensation draft picks. These young talents, these prospects, that the Nats need don't grow on trees, spontaneously combust, or hang ten in Kamino's surfy oceans.

Is this organization really at a point where it can tread water in terms of acquiring young talent? My, that was quick.

Personally -- and this is one of those "bloggers sticking his neck out fruitlessly" moments -- I believe the Nats should have moved Rauch. What Bowden says about Rauch's salary and club control status is correct, of course, but what are the chances Rauch is chuggin' along as the team's setup man when it comes time to contend -- I mean really contend, not '05 contend -- in, you know, three or four or whatever years? I don't know much about this game of baseball, but I know you don't do a few things when projecting players. You don't plan on things as simultaneously ridiculous and mundane as backup catchers of the future, and you don't etch into stone the identity of your eighth-inning pitcher years in advance. Bowden's quote, as pertaining to Rauch, sounds like a bit of an etch job. Let's say the Nats are ready to contend in 2010 -- this scenario involves a heavy infusion of talent, obviously, especially among position players. Is Rauch still around? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe he's long become ineffective by then; maybe, after hitting the arbitration game, he's long priced himself out of the team's plans. Remember where guys like Rauch, Colome, and Rivera have come from, and that where is nowhere in particular. Why pay millions upon millions for middle relief, unless you're the Baltimore Orioles of course?

So yeah, I guess I'm quibbling here. Rauch wouldn't have brought a championship-caliber prospect, if that's the standard Bowden is setting forth in these discussions, but he would have brought something. And that someone representing the something might, just might, be around come 2010 or 2012 or whenever, whereas Rauch might or probably will not be. You could apply that same principle to Belliard or Young or maybe even the Chief, too, but I'm not going to press my luck.

One more thought occurs to me, and it's that we could be seeing a change of course for this team. Guys are remaining rather than departing. In some cases, the stated reasons for standing pat are, if you'll pardon, a bit moronic:

And in Young's case, he was re-signed because the team doesn't know if Nick Johnson will fully recover from his broken leg. The team feels it has nothing at first base had Young been traded.

Just think about that for a second. Prior to this year, the Nats were concerned about Nick Johnson's health, and they had nothing at first base. (Well, Larry Broadway; with apologies to the Broadway family, that's pretty much nothing.) One of Bowden's greatest strengths is his ability to cast a line and find bounce-back guys. He found a good one in Young, and now it's time to quell his ambition for reclamation projects? Meaning no offense to Dmitri, who has been pretty much awesome so far, I just don't see why the team wouldn't try to rinse and repeat the process for 2008. (As for the rest of 2007, well, who gives two craps?)

Unless, that is, the Nats are in the midst of a course correction and, instead of picking at some marrow off the proverbial carrion, they are loading for bear. So they keep Belliard, keep Young, keep Rauch, keep Cordero, keep anyone and everyone who can contribute in the very near term.

That would be an interesting way to go, but let's be clear about something: it would take a hell of a lot of loading to get anywhere. They'd need a centerfielder, a bona fide slugger, a real leadoff man, and something on the order of three to four reliable starting pitchers. We're talking about a very active and expensive offseason.

Is that possible? As intriguing as the prospect may be, I'd guess not. More than likely, the plan -- to the extent there really is a plan, as in "The Plan" -- remains roughly the same. It will just take time and perspective to see how today fits in that vision.

But we've got time for that perspective to materialize. After all, as Bowden says, they didn't have to trade anybody.

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