Washington Nationals Manager Manny Acta Prepares for Year Ahead in Spring Training

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 2009

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 15 -- The implicit suggestion that Manny Acta can never quite know what to expect came, first, from a doctor. Acta began his Sunday by heading to a medical facility in Melbourne, there for an 8 a.m. physical. Just an annual part of the spring training routine. Acta walked in under the impression that he stood 6 feet 2, maybe even 6-2 1/2 , but somehow, the measurements confirmed otherwise.

The doctor had quoted him a new size, 6-1 1/2 , and thus, Acta reported to camp for his third season as Washington Nationals manager and declared, "I'm shrinking."

Such measurements with a high potential for disparity took full command of Acta's day, even when he sat down in his Space Coast Stadium office and tried to figure out his 2009 team. Is a better team good enough? Is winning now a realistic expectation? At times, facing these questions, Acta offered contradicting thoughts, drawing a complex picture of the team that will carry him through the most important year of his tenure. This much was clear: Acta still doesn't know quite what to expect.

Asked whether he considered this his best Washington team, Acta grew a wide smile and said, without hesitation, "Yeah. Yeah. This is, I would say, the best team we've had the three years I've been here."

But in moments, he also spoke about his team with the familiar code he used last season, when 'youth' and 'learning' and 'patience' became stand-ins for the many shortcomings. After discussing the need to improve fielding and base running, Acta said: "We have to compensate with those type of things with the lack of, I guess, amount of superstars or talent here. I'm trying to get these guys to do a lot of the stuff that some teams that are loaded with talent might not do."

All measurements need their numbers, of course, and some are easier to glean than others.

Washington enters spring training with the promise of one legitimate power hitter (Adam Dunn), three near shoo-ins for the rotation (John Lannan, Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera) and only one area that Acta identifies as a concern (the bullpen). Compared with the Washington teams in 2007 and 2008, Acta sees greater depth, greater stability, greater potency.

Given the improvement, so many of last year's escapades are now regarded with can-you-believe-when sort of distance. Can you believe that last spring, Washington had its fingers crossed that John Patterson could maybe redevelop into its ace? Can you believe that last summer, the Nationals had Paul Lo Duca sometimes playing first base?

"When I first took over here, they told us the situation here, that we were probably looking to contend a few years down the road, so I think if everything works out, the plan is right on target -- to be able to have higher expectations in 2010," Acta said.

And what about in 2009?

"Hey, let's win," Acta said. "That is what I am saying. I try to win with what I have. I'm not going in here thinking about 2010. This is a good bunch of guys, and baseball has shown in the last couple of years, do things right and you never know."

Only Monday, Acta will conduct the first workout with his pitchers and catchers. Sunday, his desk was cluttered with paperwork -- an organization-wide roster, a full depth chart, schedules for later in the spring. He planned to devote the afternoon to a kickoff meeting with his new coaching staff, where he hoped to instill in them one concept.

"Enthusiasm," Acta said. "Be positive. I'm not going to be able to make everybody around here Mr. Perky. But just to keep the enthusiasm and be teachers 24-7 here and just to know these guys. And be patient, because we're dealing with a lot of young guys, and go from there."

Acta enters 2009 with a 132-191 (.409) mark, but the Nationals have yet to pick up his option year for 2010. He is guaranteed nothing, especially if others lack his penchant for patience.

"Not until the day that we show up to spring training and every one of you guys has us as the favorite to win the National League and we start losing, then that is when my patience is going to be tested," he said. He later added: "All I can control is to manage this team to the best of my ability. Whoever's patience runs out, that I can't control."

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