Nats Offer Glimpse of Big Picture

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006

The Washington Nationals yesterday parted the veil of silence that has shrouded their offseason, revealing few details and even fewer clues regarding their most pressing issue -- the search for a new manager to replace Frank Robinson -- but outlining a broader plan geared toward fielding a contending team by the time their new stadium opens along the Anacostia riverfront in 2008.

In addition to concluding the manager search by the first week of December, the team's immediate plan includes remaining largely on the sidelines during this winter's anticipated free agent gold rush, filling its 2007 holes instead with low-cost players while accelerating the rebuilding process that team officials hope can yield dividends the following season.

"We still have a year in front of us to build," Nationals President Stan Kasten said during a question-and-answer session with reporters at the team's RFK Stadium headquarters. "But I don't think it will necessarily be longer than another year. . . . I think we are on track to have the team where we want it to be in time to move into the new ballpark."

To that end, the team is expected to announce in the coming days a complete overhaul of its scouting operation, as well as the signing of dozens of minor league free agents who will compete for roster spots next spring with fresh products of the Nationals' farm system.

"We're the world headquarters of opportunity," Kasten said.

The Nationals offered no specifics regarding the manager search, nor their efforts to re-sign left fielder Alfonso Soriano, who filed for free agency last weekend after having only preliminary conversations with the Nationals. Kasten reiterated the team's desire to re-sign Soriano, if it fits within the team's financial parameters, while acknowledging Soriano's expected market as the top free agent hitter makes that difficult to conceive.

Regarding the manager search, which has been ongoing since the team let Robinson go at the end of the season, Kasten said the process had "moved into a different phase" in the past week -- implying the team's initial list of candidates has been pared down to a handful of finalists -- with a decision possible within the next two weeks and almost certainly by the start of baseball's annual winter meetings Dec. 4-7.

"We're getting closer," Kasten said, "even though we don't have a fixed timetable or any time pressure. We don't have any apologies to make for that."

Unlike other organizations that announce their lists of candidates -- and in some cases put them before the media to observe their handling of media questioning -- the Nationals have kept the entire process secretive, not even acknowledging the veracity of media reports detailing individual interviews.

To this point, the team is known to have interviewed or considered Lou Piniella, who subsequently took the Chicago Cubs' managing job; former Florida Marlins Manager Joe Girardi, who informed the team he was not interested; Atlanta Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton, who also removed his name from consideration; former San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker; Philadelphia Phillies minor league manager John Russell; New York Mets third base coach Manny Acta; and Pittsburgh Pirates minor league manager Trent Jewett.

In addition, there are likely additional candidates whose names have not emerged in the media.

"It's been an expansive search, cutting across all classes of experience -- young, old, veteran or first-time," Kasten said. "It's been great, and it's a process that will result in the best possible fit for the circumstance of where we are now."

General Manager Jim Bowden helped define that circumstance, saying: "It's very important that whoever manages this team is well equipped to handle a building team. You've got to be able to handle young pitchers."

Bowden acknowledged the only certain member of the team's 2007 starting rotation is right-hander John Patterson, and there are unlikely to be any additional certainties acquired from the upper tiers of a free agent market that is expected to explode beyond the Nationals' budget projections.

"I don't want to rule anything out, but [signing big-name free agents] is not my current game plan," Kasten said. "I have said that when you sign free agents I actually think you take yourself farther away from your goal, if you are not ready to take advantage of the money you spend."

In another development revealed yesterday, veteran first baseman Nick Johnson has suffered a slight setback in his recovery from a broken femur, and is expected to undergo arthroscopic surgery Tuesday near his home in Sacramento to loosen scar tissue and improve his range of motion, though team officials said he should still be healthy in time for spring training.

"It's just not moving like it's supposed to," said Johnson, who suffered the injury in an on-field collision on Sept. 23. "It's sort of like stuck, range-of-motion-wise. If I get [the surgery] done, it'll just enhance the [recovery] process."

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company