Scout's Honor Coverage: Jim Bowden Interview

Part of the Braves' success over the past fifteen years has been the ability to use their farm system to improve the major league roster. In his new book, "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team," Bill Shanks talks with several GMs that have dealt with John Schuerholz over the years and acquired some of the Braves young pitching prospects. Today Shanks talks with Nationals' GM Jim Bowden, who made two trades with Schuerholz when he was the GM of the Cincinnati Reds.

SHANKS: Let me ask you about yourself. You were 31 when you became a GM?
BOWDEN: Yea. I was the youngest in baseball history at the time.

SHANKS: You were a young GM before it was cool. But you had significant player development experience, right?
BOWDEN: Yea I had a lot of experience but I surrounded myself with a lot of veteran baseball people. I was a young GM but I didn't have all the answers. I made sure I surrounded myself with people that had a lot of experience. Obviously like everybody else, the one thing that statistics do is that it's factual information. Jim Leyland had trained me when I was younger. He said, "The one thing about statistics is that statistics don't lie. It's factual."

SHANKS: And was that a big part of your philosophy?
BOWDEN: No I was about scouting and player development, scouting, assimilating information with vision. It was very similar to John Schuerholz in the fact that it's a blend of quality information when making a decision.

SHANKS: What was your high school and college philosophy?
BOWDEN: The organization's (Reds) philosophy always had to do with finances. We had to sign players that we could sign. There were years that we were told to draft someone that we can't sign, which is sometimes even harder because we couldn't afford to sign them. My feeling was that within our financial perimeters, which had to come first, we wanted to select the best player available. We were never scared of a high school player, but if all were equal we'd take a college pitcher over a high school pitcher just because of the fact of the history of high school pitchers getting to the big leagues. But the one thing that Branch Rickey always preached which was consistent with my philosophy was that with a college player you pretty much knew what you were going to get. A high school player could get a lot better because he has a chance to blossom over that three or four year period where they mature physically and emotionally. We drafted Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns, so we were never afraid to draft a high school player.

SHANKS: I know even though the Moneyball philosophy is based on finances, there is a split in the philosophy nonetheless. You knew you weren't going to really fulfill your goals that went along with your philosophy because of the finances.
BOWDEN: Exactly. It's obviously very frustrating. But just as with life or business we all have parameters we have to deal with. But instead of complaining about what your parameters are, you do the best job you can in the infrastructure you're given to work under. Obviously you've got to carry out what the owner of the baseball team wants and what their direction is. Mrs. Schott, for a period of time, would spend some money on a major league team to try and win. But she did not believe to spend money on player development and scouting. Part of the responsibility in the GM office was to convince her that you need to do it. But when the day is done as much as you can argue and debate and show her reasons why, as an owner if she says, "No you can only spend X, then you have to carry out what your told to carry out.

SHANKS: Let's talk about your discussions with John Schuerholz over the years.
BOWDEN: John Schuerholz is presidential. He is honest. He has tremendous character. He is straightforward. He doesn't play "games." He's a straight shooter to where you knew where you stand on him with a deal. The conversations always were straight to the point. I look at him at an elite GM and not because he's won 13 straight division titles. It's the way he carries himself, his thoroughness, and the way he treats people. The way he carries himself is beyond anyone in our era.

SHANKS: Is it intimidating to talk trade with him?
BOWDEN: No I think when the day is done when you're negotiating with any GM you're going only to make a deal if you feel you're going to make your organization win. You have to know that whenever you are trading for a player number one you know the other team knows the other player better than you do cause they've lived with the player for day in and day out. So you have to be aware of that. You also have to get to the point where you know your player. Let's go back to the first deal of Deion Sanders / Roberto Kelly deal. We had a club in Cincinnati that was loaded with right-handed hitters but didn't have any left-handed hitters. We didn't feel Roberto Kelly could play centerfield. We felt he was more of a corner outfielder because he didn't pick the ball up off of the bat very good in the outfield. He had bulked up so much that his swing had gotten long from weightlifting. So there was a concern on how he was going to hit, especially with fastballs in. In Deion we looked at as a tremendous athlete with tremendous speed who was a baseball player with football instincts and because of his athletic ability who knows how good this guy can be? We know he can't throw. We know he fields baseballs like he's catching punts as a punt returner. But we knew that his makeup was off the charts, he's a competitor, he's a winner, and he's got great intensity. We felt that if anyone could become a Rickey Henderson or a Tim Raines this can be develop into that if he gives up football full-time.

SHANKS: And that was still a gamble, right?
BOWDEN: Right. We kind of knew both players and there was risk in both players. But what wasn't a risk was the obvious situation with both lineups. John's was too left-handed and ours was too right-handed. When I made the initial call to John on the proposal that was my first point to him. We probably had only three conversations between the first one on a Tuesday and when we finished the deal on a Sunday. It was a straightforward discussion back and forth and then it became a debate on they needed another player thrown into the deal and that became Roger Etheridge. So we went through a list of players and that's the only real reason we had the other conversations.

SHANKS: Did you know the Deion had somewhat run his course in Atlanta?
BOWDEN: Obviously when John is doing a deal he's not going to ever give up any information that will affect a trade. We approached him on this proposal. We didn't even have to go through the issue of wondering why he was making the offer. They both were similar players but both had pimples.

SHANKS: The Neagle trade was interesting because of your ability to get a young pitcher thrown into the deal in Rob Bell.
BOWDEN: Number one from our perspective it was very difficult to trade Bret Boone. But in our situation, as it always was there, because of limiting financing, we all know you only win with good starting pitching. We obviously can't go in the free agent market and go by a pitcher, so we had to trade for one. We didn't have a lot to deal. I think Lemke had left and he needed more energy on the field. He didn't want to give up Bell because his makeup made you believe in him. But I think John knew very clearly that we weren't going to give up Bret Boone without getting an additional pitcher back. It just wasn't going to happen.

SHANKS: Even with getting a good starting pitcher you still felt you had to get that extra prospect?
BOWDEN: Well yea because pitchers can get injured and then their careers are over. There's an issue here and you'll have to look this up. One of the big arguments that I had there was if Boone had three years left and Neagle had two years left under control, there was a control difference. The other issue too is that in the first Deion/Roberto deal, I really didn't think we had to add another player to that deal. But I ended up giving up Etheridge in that deal. Not that it was a factor later on, but in fairness I just thought we needed another player.

SHANKS: And you could tell that it was difficult for him to give up that extra prospect?
BOWDEN: John never, in all my dealings with him in all the years, anytime I had a player at the trade deadline that could help him win he never wanted to give up good top guys. I think over the years when we look back at what he gave up, and I'm thinking of the Padres deal for McGriff, he'd never give up the Klesko's or a Javy Lopez or Justice. He gave up Melvin Nieves. But they knew who to give up. They always knew who to give up. They always really knew their players.

SHANKS: It seems from watching John that a player who maybe our 10th best prospect would be a top 5 prospect in other organizations. BOWDEN: Absolutely. His philosophy has always been player development and scouting. He always had phenomenal scouts, which is the most underrated thing about the Atlanta Braves. They've always had a farm system that had talent to trade and talent to get to the big leagues. What he did over the years with me was very simple. He would say this: "I'm not trading player X. So if you want to continue having a conversation about a trade, we have to do it without this name or these three names or there's no reason to talk." He's a man of his word. I can't emphasize that more. The reason that is so unique is that in our industry most GM's play a game of poker and a game of hard line negotiations. A lot of times when someone says, "I'm not going to trade him" over and over and then right before the trade deadline with three seconds to go with pressure from ownership and pressure from fans the GM will trade the guy. But John would never do that. If he says he's not going to deal, he's not going to deal. If he said, "It would be very difficult for us to trade a player, then you know there's a chance you can get a player, but it's still going to be what he says, "very difficult to get him."

SHANKS: He'd make you work a bit?
BOWDEN: Well you've got to put enough in the deal to make it happen. You need to know that's how he values players. As a GM he was the best to deal with in my opinion.

SHANKS: Do you remember any other trade discussions that didn't materialize?
BOWDEN: I was always on a team that needed to reduce payroll. I was always shopping to reduce payroll and we always wanted to trade for the Sean Caseys or the Dmitri Youngs or the young players that didn't make any money. Wily Mo Pena. We were always driven to acquire prospects. We had to draft them or trade for them because guess what, we couldn't afford them in the big leagues when they get any good. We got Sean Casey and Dmitri Young before both of them played a game in the big leagues. That's the only way we could survive. We had to get Bret Boone before he was good and then we had to trade him when he was good.

SHANKS: Did he want Sean Casey a few years ago? BOWDEN: I don't recall. I remember there being rumors about it. But if he did my response would have been, "No I'm not interested in trading Sean Casey."

SHANKS: His replacement value is so strong. He knew he could replace Rob Bell.
BOWDEN: He had enough inventory to deal those guys. He could deal a Wainwright and be fine and a Marquis and be fine. Even if they develop into good pitchers, he's got enough inventory in his system and he has enough money at the higher end to fix it.

SHANKS: And we've had Marquis, Schmidt, and Perez do well. So it must be positive to acquire a pitcher that has started out in the Braves organization?
BOWDEN: No doubt. It all depends on what they're getting back in these trades too though. It's one thing when you say they've traded so-and-so, but ok what did they get back? And one thing we can't control is when a human being all of a sudden matures and gets it. You can't control when Jason Schmidt matures at a certain time. You just don't know those things.

SHANKS: Did it help you know that Rob Bell had been taught in the Braves system?
BOWDEN: Yea I mean he had so many things going for him. He had good stats, a great fastball and breaking ball, he had great makeup, and the only concern really was there hasn't been that many upside down pitchers. We really felt that having his great makeup would make it work out. Was it bad for Atlanta to trade a pitcher like that? Nope.

Bill Shanks's book, Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, is at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore and available online at You can email Bill at

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