Welcome to another "What If" Wednesday, where we take a trip back in time to see how things would have worked out for the Nationals if they had made a different decision way back when. Today, we're going to look at one of the team's biggest decisions early in its time in Washington: the choice not to trade Alfonso Soriano at the 2006 deadline.
If you remember back to that time, Soriano was in the midst of an historic season, albeit one that had started with unrest; he refused to take the field when manager Frank Robinson put him in the lineup as a left fielder in spring training, starting a two-day standoff as the former second baseman chafed at his new position. But Soriano eventually accepted the move, mended fences with the team and became the first player to hit 40 homers, post 40 doubles and steal 40 bases in a season.
He was due to hit free agency after the season, though, which meant the Nationals were entertaining offers for him near the trade deadline. They wanted Matt Garza from the Twins - who were on their way to a 96-win season - but Minnesota wouldn't part with the right-hander, only offering right-hander Kevin Slowey to headline their package of players.
(On a somewhat related note, the Twins eventually traded Garza to Tampa Bay when Bill Smith replaced Terry Ryan as general manager, parting with the pitcher shortly before they traded Johan Santana for an underwhelming package of players. And Smith, as it turns out, was fired this week, as Ryan came out of retirement to replace him.)
There are a couple ways we can take the alternative version of events: First, what if general manager Jim Bowden had been able to pry Garza away from the Twins? It seems hard to believe the Twins would have changed their stance, but it's also hard to believe the Nationals would have passed up that deal, and they would have had a 22-year-old pitcher to put at the front of their rotation. Garza has had some brilliant moments in the majors, most notably his Game 7 win over the Red Sox in the 2008 American League Championship Series, and could turn out to be a better pitcher in the National League with the Cubs, but his career ERA is still only 3.83. And if the Nationals had made the deal for Slowey, they probably wouldn't have been thrilled with the results; the right-hander has underwhelming stuff and a 4.66 career ERA.
Instead, Bowden hung on to Soriano, letting him leave in free agency when the Cubs offered him an astronomical eight-year, $136 million deal with a full no-trade clause. Soriano will be 36 in January, had a .769 OPS last season and still has three years left on his deal. Unless new GM Theo Epstein can find some way to unload him, he'll play out his contract in Chicago, where he's now paired with ... Garza, strangely enough.
Underwhelmed by their offers at the trade deadline, the Nationals took the two compensation picks for losing Soriano and used them as part of a pitching-heavy draft that Bowden said would revitalize the farm system. Many of the picks from that draft haven't panned out, including sandwich pick Josh Smoker, the first compensatory selection for losing Soriano (though, it should be noted, Smoker is still only 22 and appears to be remaking himself as a reliever at Single-A Potomac).
The biggest reason the Nationals are still feeling good about the decision to hang onto Soriano at the deadline, then let him walk in December, though, is the second pick they got in return for his deal with the Cubs. That would be right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, whom the team snagged with the 67th pick in the draft out of tiny Wisconsin-Stevens Point after then-assistant GM Mike Rizzo vouched for the gritty right-hander in the draft room. Zimmermann had a 3.18 ERA last year - 14 points better than Garza's - and doesn't turn 26 until next May. He looks like a mainstay in the team's rotation for the next six or seven years, next to Stephen Strasburg, and he's blossomed into one of the best young pitchers in the National League.
So it seems clear the Nationals did the right thing with Soriano, given what was on the table for them at the time. It would have been interesting to see how things would have worked out had the Twins parted with Garza at that point, but especially in light of how Zimmermann has turned out, the decision to keep Soriano looks like the right one, either way.
What do you remember from the Soriano discussions at the time? Were you in favor of the Nationals trading him, signing him to a long-term deal or doing what they ended up doing? Let me know how you felt about the non-trade then, and what you think of it now.