The change in economy certainly played a part in the Nats' troubles, especially when the bottom fell out of both the stock market and the team's win-loss record toward the end of the year. Washington finished at 59-102, the worst record in the National League and the worst mark for the franchise since the 1976 Expos went 55-107.
It was anything but a surprise. For one thing, Bowden's scavenging failed to stop the team's bleeding. But more troubling was the deterioration of the lineup's true assets. Since his arrival in Washington, Austin Kearns' offense had pulled a Houdini-esque disappearing act. His batting average dropped from .266 to .217 in 2008, and his home runs dropped from 16 to 7.
As if that weren't bad enough, Ryan "Face of the Franchise" Zimmerman had seen his offense fall off in 2007 and again in 2008. The team was hopeful that his numbers would perk up when they moved out of cavernous RFK Stadium, but it didn't happen. Zimmerman finished 2008 with a fairly empty .283 average, supported by just 14 HR and 31 walks. That's not bad, but it was seen as a major letdown from a player who'd been drawing comparisons to Brooks Robinson just three years earlier.
The pitching staff was disappointing as usual. Bowden's decision to keep Chad Cordero blew up in his face when the closer, in his last year before free agency, suffered a season-ending injury, thereby negating any trade value he had.
If that weren't bad enough, Bowden made a major PR mistake when he announced in the middle of July that the team would be letting Cordero go at the end of the season. Cordero was stunned, because this announcement came on a radio show. So not only did Bowden give Cordero the heave-ho in embarassing fashion, he showed his hand early and basically ruined any chance of trading or re-signing the hurler. It was also a not-so-subtle message to the fans that Bowden had already given up on 2008 and was already deciding who to cut before 2009. Moves such as this aren't very productive for a team that already has problems with attendance and fan approval.
So it was no surprise to see Bowden go. The only real surprise was that it wasn't due to his poor performance as GM, but rather due to the ongoing federal investigation. It was a similar tale that led to his departure from Cincinnati: short-term patches for a shoddy offense and the total neglect of a woeful pitching staff. The only difference was that in Cincinnati, Bowden inherited a ballclub with a solid core, so that the team's decline was steadier and more drawn out. He didn't have that luxury in Washington, so his mistakes were more immediate and more dramatic.