Nats Have a Plan, But Much Uncertainty

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Jim Bowden has a detailed plan in place for the offseason operation of the Washington Nationals. He has submitted it to team president Tony Tavares. He is in the process of preparing for arbitration cases, of beginning to pursue free agents, of seeking ways to create trades.

The job as the Nationals' general manager belongs, for now, to Bowden, and though the team could have a new owner this month, and the new owner could decide to hire someone else to run the baseball operation, there is no way to predict what a new GM might do. Bowden's plan, for now, is all the Nationals have, and as the playoffs begin and the Nationals head home, it is one that likely means changes to the roster of the first baseball team in Washington since 1971.

"You're going to win with pitching and defense in this ballpark," Bowden said. "You never get enough pitching. We didn't score a lot of runs; we've got to correct that. We certainly didn't have a lot of speed; that has to be corrected."

The Nationals finished last in baseball in almost every major offensive category -- batting average (.252), runs (3.94 per game), home runs (117), RBI (615), slugging percentage (.386) and on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (.708). Bowden and Manager Frank Robinson -- whose job is, similarly, in question until a new owner is identified -- believe that some of the pieces are in place, particularly if second baseman Jose Vidro rehabilitates his ailing right knee and comes back in shape. The team has no proven home run hitter, and is likely to let outfielder Preston Wilson, acquired in a midseason trade, go via free agency. Power is a clear problem. Jose Guillen had the most homers as a National, 24, and Guillen's modest 76 RBI led the team.

"We need at least two bats," Robinson said.

Yet the market for free agent power hitters is quite thin, with first baseman Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox the most accomplished candidate -- and the Nationals believe current first baseman Nick Johnson can be productive if he, finally, stays healthy for a full season. The free agent class is a far cry from last season, when Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and others were available. So rather than pursuing power, the Nationals' most viable offensive solution might be at the top of the order.

"We need a leadoff hitter," Guillen said.

Brad Wilkerson served in that capacity in 136 games in 2005, but his .248 batting average and 147 strikeouts make him less than ideal at the top. There is already talk of a salary purge in Florida, where sleek center fielder Juan Pierre is eligible for arbitration and likely to receive a hefty raise. There is a distinct possibility the Marlins will decline to tender Pierre a contract, thus making him a free agent.

A presence such as Pierre's would fundamentally change the Nationals' lineup. Though his on-base percentage fell to .326 this season -- below Wilkerson's career-low .351 -- he has played in 162 games for three straight years, averaged 99 runs scored in his five full major league seasons, and was second in the National League with 57 steals, 12 more than the Nationals swiped as a team .

One potential problem: The Nationals head into the offseason with a surplus of outfielders. Even if Wilson isn't re-signed, Guillen, Wilkerson, Ryan Church, Marlon Byrd and Terrmel Sledge -- returning from a hamstring injury suffered in May -- will head into spring training seeking jobs. It's highly unlikely all will return. Wilkerson, who earned $3.05 million this season and is eligible for arbitration again, and Church, a rookie, are likely to bring the most in return via trade. Bowden considers Guillen, who will earn $4 million in 2006, a bargain whose numbers will improve if he stays away from nagging shoulder, rib and ankle injuries that hampered him this season.

"You're not going to go out and improve your team just by free agency," Robinson said. "You're going to have to make some trades. And you always trade from strength, trade from a surplus. So that would bode well to have some excess there."

Where the Nationals have no excess is in the starting rotation, where Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza and John Patterson had to lug the staff to the finish line, barely surviving. Hernandez, signed through 2007, and Patterson, due a hefty raise in arbitration after earning $322,500 in 2005, will almost certainly be back. Loaiza, though, has a mutual option in his contract for 2006 at $2.9 million. His agent, John Boggs, said last month that after Loaiza went 12-10 with a 3.77 ERA in 217 innings he will pursue a more lucrative deal.

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