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As Nats Plan for Future, Acta Embraces Present

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Dec. 5 -- Manny Acta is all too aware that even the people who run the Washington Nationals are bracing for the looming storm that could be the 2007 season, one in which the club is brazenly frank about how bad it might be. Team president Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden have rolled out a plan for the future -- talking ad nauseum about scouting and player development -- and they don't seem inclined to waver from it in the slightest.

It will be Acta's duty, at age 37, to lead this group of not yet ready for prime time players in what will be his first year managing in the majors. His response to the gloom-and-doom forecasts likely mirrors how he will deal with his players: simple and direct.

"I want to shock the world," Acta said Tuesday at baseball's winter meetings. "I want to play over .500 and be playing meaningful games at the end of the season. I just cannot walk into this situation and right off the bat be penciling myself in last place right away. I don't care what anybody says."

What people are whispering in the lobby of Walt Disney World's Dolphin hotel is that, as hard as they're trying, it's unlikely the Nationals will be involved in any major deals. Though they were drawn into talks that involved Boston outfielder Manny Ramirez -- discussions that would have sent Ramirez to a third team and brought the Nationals prospects -- it appears that they're more likely to settle for a minor trade, perhaps involving outfielder Ryan Church. Closer Chad Cordero continues to draw significant interest, though the Nationals would be far more reluctant to part with him.

"We don't have to make a trade," Bowden said Tuesday evening at the end of a day in which he said he met with nine teams. "With our plan, you don't have to. But we're going to exercise and look at everything in case there's an opportunity, and that's what we've done."

Church, 28, has been the subject of much of the Nationals' discussions, and there were indications that the Chicago Cubs showed more interest Tuesday. The Cubs are trying to trade outfielder Jacque Jones, and Church could be a cheaper left-handed hitter to replace him.

Cordero, though, might be a more attractive commodity for another team, and sources indicated the Boston Red Sox, who are without a closer, remain interested in the 24-year-old who led the majors in saves in 2005. Bowden, who wouldn't address specific offers, admitted it would be "very hard" to part with Cordero, who is eligible for arbitration for the first time.

"I do know that, at the end of the day, I don't think you're ever going to get top players without giving up top players," Bowden said. "That's life. . . . One team might win early, and one team might win late on a trade."

Sources indicated that -- in the unlikely event Cordero is moved -- Washington would insist on receiving starting pitchers in return, with at least one ready for the major leagues. Acta, too, sounded reluctant to deal Cordero.

"One of the most discouraging things in baseball is winning a ballgame for eight innings and lose in one," Acta said. "It's a very important piece of our club. . . . He's fearless, and he's very consistent when it comes down to his location."

Though Acta said he would like to leave the meetings -- which conclude Thursday -- having made a trade that brings "at least two young arms to add to our roster," he also made it clear that he has studied his roster and the entire Nationals system in detail. Should he head to spring training with the same team he has now, he has already made plans about how he will handle it.

He said that should second baseman Jose Vidro remain with the team -- the Nationals are still trying to move the veteran and the $16 million remaining on the final two years of his contract, though it appears a market hasn't truly developed -- he will hit second, and shortstop Felipe Lopez will lead off. He believes the bullpen -- with a healthy Luis Ayala -- will be a strength, that much needs to be determined about the health of shortstop Cristian Guzman and first baseman Nick Johnson, and that the expectations for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman are real.

"He's already got pressure on him," Acta said.

The Nationals, conversely, aren't likely to have much pressure on them in 2007. But whether they make a trade, don't tell their new manager what the expectations are before he takes the field.

"That's not going to cross my mind until late in the season, when I see the reality," Acta said. "I mean, that's the way I am. I'm optimistic. I believe it's 25 against 25 every single day, and I believe my guys can have a good day every single day."

Nationals Note: Cincinnati GM Wayne Krivsky said that although his team's lawyers continue to pursue filing a grievance against Washington -- the Reds feel they received damaged goods in a trade for reliever Gary Majewski in July -- he has not ruled out dealing with the Nationals in the future.

"I don't have any problem with it," he said. "I don't like eliminating teams from the pool of players to acquire."

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