A sprint to spring

They won’t acknowledge it publicly yet — not until they make a formal announcement, perhaps today — but the Washington Nationals believe they have found the manager to lead them into the future in Manny Acta.

The club’s six-week search for Frank Robinson’s replacement ended over the weekend when general manager Jim Bowden and team president Stan Kasten offered the job to Acta, the 37-year-old third base coach of the New York Mets and a familiar face to those who were with the franchise before its relocation from Montreal.

By all accounts, Acta is the right man for the job. Forget all the speculation about the Nationals going after a big-name manager. Lou Piniella, Joe Girardi and Dusty Baker would not have been wise hires, not at this stage of the organization’s development.

Bowden, Kasten and the Lerner family have committed to building a successful major league club over the long haul, building from within and showing patience while a core group of young players matures into a championship-caliber team.

Acta fits perfectly into that plan. The upbeat, popular Dominican native is going to be the youngest manager in the major leagues, which is going to come in handy because the Nationals might have one of the game’s youngest rosters in 2007. Assuming Alfonso Soriano signs elsewhere — and all indications are he will — and Kasten sticks to his guns and shies away from top-tier, veteran free agents, Acta may not have any significant players over 30 when he arrives at spring training.

This team is going to be built around Ryan Zimmerman (22), Nick Johnson (28), Brian Schneider (29), John Patterson (28), Chad Cordero (24), Felipe Lopez (26) and Austin Kearns (26).

Those players will be joined (eventually) by the organization’s restocked farm system, which includes the likes of outfielders Kory Casto and Chris Marrero, pitchers Matt Chico, Garrett Mock and Colton Willems, infielder Esmailyn Gonzalez and first baseman Larry Broadway. More intriguing players should be on the way now that a revamped scouting department is in place and is scouring the world for top talent.

So the Nationals do have the makings of a foundation, at long last. But they still have a long way to go, and there are still a host of key issues that must be addressed now that they have hired a manager.

For starters, Acta needs a coaching staff. At the moment, all he’s got is pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who was smartly retained by Bowden after proving his worth over the last four seasons. The rest of the staff is vacant, though, because Bowden chose not to bring back anyone else from Robinson’s regime.

Almost every other team in the majors already has its coaching staff in place, so Acta is going to be behind from Day One on the job. And considering his young age and lack of major league experience, he doesn’t have a loyal following of coaches who can join him in the District like other veteran managers do.

Who will pick this staff, Acta himself or Bowden, who essentially told Robinson who to hire last winter? And what type of coaches are they looking for: experienced minds who can counter Acta’s naivete, or fellow young and enthusiastic men who can relate better to their players?

This is priority No. 1 as the Nationals move forward.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t other pressing needs heading into the winter. Acta’s roster is filled with holes, especially on a pitching staff that ranked last in the National League with a 5.03 ERA and features only one semi-established returning starter in Patterson.

Kasten and Bowden have said they aren’t going after top-tier free agents, so where are they going to find arms to fill out a five-man rotation? Will they hold open tryouts next spring with all those minor league free agents they signed last week? Will they sign several third-tier free agents to one-year contracts like they did last year with Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas and Pedro Astacio? Will they go young and hand over the reins to Mike O’Connor, Shawn Hill, Mock and Chico?

No matter what method they choose, the Nationals need to come up with five competent starting pitchers that can both pitch effectively in 2007 and figure into the club’s long-term plans.

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