- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The Washington Nationals dispersed around the country yesterday, players, coaches and others heading home for the winter following a frustrating season that ended with a weekend-long tribute to now-former manager Frank Robinson.

They won’t be together again until mid-February, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Viera, Fla., and the whole process begins anew.

But back at RFK Stadium, the real work began yesterday. General manager Jim Bowden, under the guidance of team president Stan Kasten, kicked off his most important part of the year: the offseason.

There’s no shortage of issues for Bowden to address during the next four and a half months. His club just posted a 71-91 record, finishing last in the National League East division for the third straight year, and very little about next year has been established.

The Nationals can take some solace knowing they’ll be bringing back a small but strong nucleus of key players: Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, Brian Schneider, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, John Patterson and Chad Cordero. But almost everything else for next season remains uncertain.

Bowden and his troops will be kept plenty busy over the winter. Here, though, are the five issues that take precedence before everything else:

Hire a new manager

The club’s first order of business is the most obvious one. With Robinson’s departure, the Nationals must decide who will lead the team in 2007.

Neither Bowden nor Kasten will reveal specifics about their gameplan, but indications are the two will conduct a comprehensive search for the new manager and don’t necessarily feel an urgency to get it done immediately.

That could change in a hurry, though, if the rest of the open managerial market fires up as it appears it might. The Florida Marlins are expected to officially fire Joe Girardi today and name Atlanta Braves third base coach Fredi Gonzalez as his replacement, which could set off a chain of events that significantly affects the Nationals.

Both Girardi and Gonzalez were expected to be candidates for the Washington job, and with Girardi a hot name around the sport, Bowden could feel pressure to move quick and try to secure a guy who may win NL Manager of the Year.

Regardless who the Nationals end up with, they must make the right decision here. This one will have a lasting effect on almost everything else that takes place at RFK during the next year and at the new ballpark after that.

Decide on re-signing Soriano

If the managerial search is priority No. 1, this is easily No. 1a. From the moment they acquired him from the Texas Rangers last winter, the Nationals knew this decision eventually would have to be made. Alfonso Soriano had just one year on his contract and is now due to become a free agent 15 days after conclusion of the World Series.

The organization must decide whether it really wants to keep Soriano for the next several seasons, and if so, how much it is willing to spend on him. Soriano, who turns 31 in January, is going to command a huge contract on the open market after a record-breaking 40-40 season, and consensus is that he’s not likely to return.

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