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Hot Stove Daily: Washington Nationals

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

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Zimmerman

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason plans of every MLB team before the Dec. 3-6 winter meetings. Our series concludes with the Washington Nationals.

2007 record: 73-89

Finish: Fourth place in the National League East

2007 Opening-day payroll: $37 million

Free agents: Robert Fick 1B/OF/C; Tony Batista 3B/1B; D'Angelo Jimenez IF; Tony Womack 2B; Travis Lee 1B; Dan Kolb RP.

WISH LIST

The Nationals surprised almost everyone in 2007 by not losing 110 games, en route to losing 89 instead, and with the worst offense in baseball. Now they open a new ballpark – so far it's Nationals Park, but naming rights are available – and general manager Jim Bowden, after acquiring Lastings Milledge from the Mets this week, is thinking starting pitching and catching.

By dealing catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church for Milledge, Bowden appears to have set his outfield with Wily Mo Pena in left, Milledge in center and Austin Kearns in right. Milledge can be a handful, but he’s got a friend and supporter in Nationals manager Manny Acta, the former third base coach in New York. And, it would seem, Milledge is a long-term upgrade over Nook Logan.

Now there’s the issue of replacing Schneider, who did very little for the Nationals offensively but was a steady, reassuring influence on a young and malleable pitching staff and threw out his share of baserunners. The Nats carried Rule 5 catcher Jesus Flores last season, but probably will add a veteran catcher for the heavy lifting.

The Nats, as it turned out, did not have the worst pitching in baseball and, indeed, had a competitive team ERA. The starters as a whole were uneven, however, in part because they required 13 of them. The hope here is to have John Patterson and Shawn Hill healthy in spring training and add another starter. If he becomes available, Dontrelle Willis might fit.

Bowden probably could be convinced to part with Austin Kearns, Chad Cordero or Jon Rauch in a trade. In fact, only third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is believed to be untouchable.

REALITY CHECK

Jones

Acta

Acta and the Nats had a nice little season; not a contending one, but a mildly competitive one, which was going to bridge the move from RFK to Nationals Park.

While it is reasonable to assume they wrung every possible win out of 2007, it is unreasonable to assume they will overachieve again in 2008, at least to the extent that would lift them to the level of the Phillies, Mets and Braves in the division.

The club is committed to building through player development, which, for the moment, looks like code for, "Thanks for the ballpark, but we'll need some patience out of you." That said, team president Stan Kasten did show up on Andruw Jones' doorstep about four weeks ago, according to the Washington Post, which suggests two things: You can never be really sure what the Nats will do and Scott Boras has some serious holes on his flanks.

One does wonder how the Nationals will improve their offense. Nick Johnson should be back from the broken leg that cost him all of last season, but returns to find Comeback-of-the-Year winner Dmitri Young standing at first base and with a two-year contract. Shortstop Cristian Guzman is back from thumb surgery, but hit .219 in his last full season. In a generally pop-less offense, only Zimmerman drove in 75 runs or more, and he is recovering from wrist surgery.

Maybe Pena becomes the masher the Reds and Red Sox once also believed he would become. And maybe Cordero and, say, Rauch, would bring a bat in a trade, but what would that do to the eighth and ninth innings?

Barring any of that, it appears the Nats' lone option is to overachieve. Again.

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