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.
Bowden considers Loaiza and right-hander Hector Carrasco, a 35-year-old career reliever, as his top priorities to re-sign in the offseason. Carrasco earned $350,000 this season, but will command much more after going 5-4 with a 2.04 ERA, showing his versatility by making five starts, and learning a change-up from pitching coach Randy St. Claire that made him much more effective.
But even if the Nationals are able to retain both Loaiza and Carrasco, they will need at least two more starters. Tony Armas Jr. is almost certain to be let go as a free agent, and right-hander Ryan Drese is due to return after shoulder surgery. Bowden said he wants to head into spring training able to choose from among eight proven starters. One of the top free agents is Florida's A.J. Burnett, who has expressed a willingness to play in Washington. But some in the Nationals' organization were unimpressed with the way Burnett finished his season, questioning the atmosphere in the Marlins organization and, consequently, getting kicked off the team.
If the Nationals don't pursue Burnett, veteran Kevin Millwood of Cleveland is a distinct possibility, according to one organizational source. The rotation is without a left-hander, and Jarrod Washburn of the Los Angeles Angels is the top prospect in that category, though he will be highly sought.
The bullpen, anchored by closer Chad Cordero -- who led the majors with 47 saves -- was the team's unquestioned strength. Gary Majewski and a healthy Luis Ayala are in place as right-handed setup men. But Robinson believes he needs a "power left-hander," and the two top names on the market are Philadelphia's Billy Wagner and Baltimore's B.J. Ryan. An organizational source said the Nationals will pursue Ryan, though the 29-year-old was a full-time closer for the Orioles this year, and it may be difficult to convince him to share the job with Cordero, who the Nationals believe would benefit from more rest.
Finally, there is the matter of character. When times got tough this summer, the Nationals, admittedly, tore apart.
"We need someone who can control some things around here," Patterson said.
So look for the Nationals, while they fulfill needs, to consider going after players who have been in the postseason, veterans who would have an impact in the clubhouse.
"We got a lot of learning to do, a lot of maturing as a team," Wilkerson said. "You see the Braves out there, they got that leadership that's going to take them to the top each and every year. We got to find a way to find that kind of leadership and lead these guys to, hopefully, come together.
"That's the biggest thing. We have the talent in the clubhouse. We've just got to find a way to come together as a team and put it all together."
Nationals Notes: Washington released left-hander John Halama, catcher Keith Osik and right-hander Antonio Osuna yesterday. Halama went 0-3 with a 4.64 ERA in 10 appearances. Osik has already accepted a college coaching position at Farmingdale State in New York and will almost certainly retire. Osuna appeared in only four games for the Nationals, posting a 42.43 ERA, before sitting out the rest of the season with injuries. . . . The Nationals also added three of their top prospects to the 40-man roster: infielder Kory Casto, the franchise's minor league player of the year; outfielder Frank Diaz and right-hander Armando Galarraga.