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Nats GM in trouble, Rox on the block, pitchers who'll get paid

Embattled Nationals general manager Jim Bowden still appears to have the support of his bosses, who blame others for problems that have beset Bowden and the club in recent days, according to people who have spoken to the leadership of the last-place club.

Bowden's job status would figure to remain uncertain longterm under the current conditions, which include the team's worst-in-baseball 45-83 record. But for now, his bosses are backing him on key issues in conversations with other top baseball people. Those issues include both the failure to sign No. 1 draft choice Aaron Crow and reports that Bowden is being investigated in baseball's scout skimming scandal.

Nationals higherups are blaming the failed Crow negotiations squarely on Crow's advisers, the Hendricks brothers, according to people familiar with their thinking. Nationals people maintain that the Hendricks brothers failed to respond to the team's offers for the University of Missouri right-hander until three days before the deadline, and that when they finally did respond, the Hendrickses sent an outrageous $9 million, take-it-or-leave-it proposal.

Furthermore, Nationals people say the demand wasn't lowered until 11:44 p.m. on deadline day, 16 minutes before the deadline, and when they did, they were still seeking $4.4 million. And that they only lowered their request to a still-way-above-market $4 million at the buzzer. So to Bowden's bosses, Crow is a member of the independent Forth Worth Cats solely because of his agents' hardball tactics.

It's hard to know for sure who's to blame in the breakdown of the Crow negotiations, though it appears that the Hendricks were playing extreme hardball. Some Nationals people have told others they are embarrassed to have even offered Crow $3.3 million, which is about what the Orioles paid Brian Matusz, a much higher first-round pick. Nats people believe the Hendrickses were trying to steal a page out of the Scott Boras playbook. That's a fine playbook. But they appear to have overdone it. (Boras' first-round clients all signed, except Gerrit Cole, a high schooler who's said by sources to be from a wealthy family that didn't need the money and who followed his dad's sound advice to go to college.)

Meanwhile, key Nationals people are blaming the attention being given to Bowden in the scout skimming scandal on erroneous press reports. Bowden's bosses seem to be under the impression that baseball is talking to every team about the scout skimming scandal, not just the Nats and a handful of other teams, and that Bowden was only interviewed regarding a past employee.

Ultimately, the scout skimming situation could prove much more problematic for Bowden -- although MLB doesn't have the goods on Bowden and may well find nothing to tie him to the scandal. But people familiar with the investigation tell SI.com that Bowden is indeed under investigation, that it's "completely false'' that Bowden was only asked about previous employees and that the Nationals are one of "six-to-eight'' teams currently being looked at. And contrary to what top Nationals people seem to believe, the FBI and MLB investigators aren't taking a scattershot approach and are "going where the information takes them.''

The Nationals owners, the Lerners, are said by other owners to be "sweet people'' who appear to be showing remarkable faith in their general manager. And perhaps they should be credited for their loyalty. But from here, it may also be a case of bad taste. While they are showing confidence in Bowden, they'd be better served placing their faith in club president Stan Kasten, the accomplished baseball man who along with John Schuerholz built the Braves dynasty. Kasten came to the Lerners as an arranged marriage set up by MLB powers, including commissioner Bud Selig. But while Kasten had all the power of a president in Atlanta, he is said by people familiar with the situation to be frustrated by the need to have approval for just about any move he makes in Washington.

As for Bowden, a person is innocent until proven guilty, of course, and all Bowden is guilty of to this point is a string of baseball mistakes that appear to have left the Nationals years from contention, from the failure to sign the talented Crow to acquiring players of questionable character such as Elijah Dukes to locking up not one but two first basemen with chronic health issues (Nick Johnson is injury prone while Dmitri Young's diabetes is no small concern) to fielding a team with only one major-league average position player (third baseman Ryan Zimmerman).

Several competing GMs criticized the Nationals for trading productive reliever Jon Rauch in a market bereft of bullpen stars for second-base prospect Emilio Bonifacio, a speed and glove man who one scout said "will struggle with the breaking ball.'' But it's early, and Bonifacio is said by those who know him to be a "great kid.''

Nats people are downplaying the defection of Crow, saying that since their lost first-round pick will be replaced by a similar one next year, that's not such a big deal. However, any delay does hurt the team that has wisely emphasized their drafts and player development (they signed their first 20 picks last year, and went over slot on rounds two through five this year). As one competing executive said, "The Nationals need whatever they can get.''

But that is all nitpicky stuff compared to what MLB is investigating. Nothing's been proven yet, and it's still difficult to fathom that a baseball GM who makes a high six-figure salary could possibly be so foolish to embroil himself in this mess. It's quite possible that Bowden isn't involved or that nothing may ever be proven regarding Bowden. But make no mistake, no matter what Nationals people believe, baseball is looking into it.

The Rockies already were expected to be at the center of trading activity this winter with their likely shopping of superstar outfielder Matt Holliday, who may prove too pricey for them. While the Rockies were likely to try one last time to lock up Holliday, they understand their chances to do so remain slim after last spring's aborted efforts.

Holliday's expected availability should cause a feeding frenzy reminiscent of what preceded the Miguel Cabrera trade last winter.

But Holliday might just be the beginning of a Rockies makeover.

People familiar with their thinking say they believe the Rockies may also entertain offers for longtime star Todd Helton -- that is, provided Helton can return this year to show his back is healthy. Helton has been on the disabled list with a lower back strain since June 3 and isn't expected back when he's eligible Sept. 3.

If Helton can return, he'd create a logjam at the corner infield spots.

The conventional wisdom has been that Garrett Atkins could hit the block along with Holliday. But the Rockies may like how things have gone in Helton's absence. They could easily first try to deal Helton instead.

Rookie Ian Stewart has played a brilliant third base and Atkins has moved over to play a solid first base. Optimally, the youth-oriented Rockies probably would prefer that first-third combination going forward. While Colorado appears to be suffering from some year-after effects this year, they do posses a superb young nucleus and don't want to break it up.

Helton's backloaded $141.5-million, nine-year contract which has $56.9 million remaining through 2011 means the Rockies would have to seriously subsidize it should they find a taker. They've talked to the Angels and Red Sox in the past about Helton.

But while a trade for Helton, who was batting .266 with seven homers, may not be easy, one benefit to trying to move Helton this winter could be a large number of large-market teams in the market for a first baseman, possibly including the Mariners, Yankees, Mets and maybe even the Angels if they fail to re-sign Mark Teixeira.

Thanks to all the e-mailers who pointed out I was incorrect saying Epstein wore his Gorilla disguise while re-entering the Red Sox front office three winters ago. Of course, it occurred while he was exiting. When else to wear a monkey suit?

Thanks also to all the e-mailers who suggested my list of seven top free agents (CC Sabathia, Teixeira, Manny Ramirez, Ben Sheets, Adam Dunn, Francisco Rodriguez and Pat Burrell) probably should have included one or two more top free agents. I agree.

Those two free agents -- Ryan Dempster and Oliver Perez -- should also qualify to receive in the range of the $48 million, four-year deal I predicted for Burrell, perhaps even a little higher.

Dempster has thrived with the Cubs. While I think he'd be wise to stick with Jim Hendry, Lou Piniella, Larry Rothschild and Co. Dempster on Thursday told the Chicago Tirbune he'd indeed prefer to re-sign with the Cubs. He should match that $48 million figure, especially since that was the exact take for Carlos Silva, who isn't nearly the pitcher Dempster is.

Perez has thrived lately with the Mets, and he could also reach that figure, or even beat it. The guesses here would be $48 million for four years for Dempster, and $60 million for five years for Perez.

• The Padres, who normally aren't in the habit of helping out the Dodgers, showed they are open-minded with their trade of Greg Maddux to L.A. Maddux wanted to go to the Dodgers to join a pennant race, and it was nice of the Pads to accommodate him. Of course, the Dodgers also agreed to pay about half the $2.5 million remaining on Maddux's deal.

• Maddux plans to play again next year, according to people close to him. Last time around he managed to get a $16 million, two year deal even though it was obvious he only wanted to play for the Padres or Dodgers. The same conditions will likely apply this time.

• Maddux's buddies John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, who just underwent a shoulder and elbow operation, also appear determined to return to pitch. It would be nice if they all retire together, whatever year that is, so they could all go into the Hall of Fame together.

• Jarrod Washburn, a northern Wisconsin native, badly wanted to go to the Twins after hearing it was Minnesota that got the claim on him. Seattle has to do what it feels is best for its organization. But the total take of their firesale is this: They released Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro and traded Arthur Rhodes for pitching prospect Gaby Hernandez. Anytime a team can be rid of the incredibly unclutch Rhodes, that's a plus. But, all in all, it wasn't much of a firesale.

• The Rangers are considering a return for Milton Bradley, who's hit very well (he leads the AL in OPS) and behaved relatively well this year in Arlington (notwithstanding his incident with the Royals broadcaster back in June). But what to pay him? They got a bargain for $6 million this year. His stats indicate a sizable raise and maybe even a multiyear deal. But perhaps he should do what he can to stay in Texas considering manager Ron Washington's apparent excellent influence on him.

• Astros players are trying to recruit Ben Sheets, according to the Houston Chronicle. Sheets, a Louisiana product, is a natural fit for the Astros.

• The Reds dipped in with high-priced closer Francisco Cordero and high-priced manager Dusty Baker, and some are expecting them to be even bigger players in the free-agent market this winter.

• One scout on Michael Inoa, the A's 16-year-old top prospect from the Dominican Republic: "He's special.''

• Another scout on Nippon Ham Fighters 22-year-old pitcher Yu Darvish: "He's no Daisuke.'' Darvish pitched a nice game vs. the U.S. in a possible showcase and is expected to be the next big pitcher to come from Japan. This scout wasn't overwhelmed. "He wasn't as good as I expected.''

• No scout is needed to tell us about Stephen Strasburg. Barring something crazy, the Olympic star from San Diego State has already established himself as next year's No. 1 pick. His one-hit, 11-whiff performance against the Netherlands was an excellent show.

• One reason instant replay is needed on home-run calls: It's impossible to tell in many of the new parks. The replay call is the best one baseball's made this year.

• The Mets' starting pitching is so good right now it may not matter who's in their bullpen. Still, I wouldn't be shocked to see the Mets make a play for Francisco Rodriguez this winter.

• Luis Castillo is said to be ready. But Mets manager Jerry Manuel understandably likes how things are going with Argenis Reyes and Damion Easley and has no immediate plans to implement Castillo. Both Reyes and Easley have brought an added spark to the team.

• In addition to the Red Sox, the Pirates and Royals spent about $10 million on draft choices this year. What is remarkable about the Red Sox doing it is that they were picking at the end of the first round. Even so, that's a nice job by the Pirates and Royals, who appear to be trying a lot harder now than they were a few years ago. Good for them.

• It's good to see all-time good guy Cliff Floyd playing a major role for the Rays, who have miraculously managed to thrive even in the absence of Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria. Floyd had been telling people this will probably be his final season. But he might have to rethink that decision.

• Symbol of the Braves' rough season: Omar Infante batting cleanup.

• If Braves manager Bobby Cox weren't a legend, he'd be on the hot seat by now. It's not just bad luck and a worse 'pen when a team loses 27 straight one-run games on the road.

• Carl Pavano is said to have a pain in his neck. But as George King of the New York Post points out, he actually is a pain in the neck. Pavano's lack of effort has appalled teammates and media people for years, and the Yankees' decision to pitch him Saturday only shows how desperate they are. If someone gives him a job next year, even a minor-league job, they should have their head examined. The day the Yankees announced Pavano as the probable pitcher is the day I wrote them off.

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