It's that time of year when members of the media fraternity covering last-place teams set out to see what's in store for next year. The first step is to look to team executives to hear the words that will indicate whether a manager's job is safe.
General manager Jim Bowden delivered on that last week ... pretty much.
Asked whether it was safe to say manager Manny Acta will be back next season, Bowden said this:
"He's the manager. Stan [Kasten]'s the president. I'm the GM. He's the manager. That's what it is until we announce something different for any of us."
The obvious conclusion there is that Acta's job is safe, especially since Bowden began his response to questions about Acta by saying, "I'm a big supporter of Manny. I think Manny has done an excellent job with this team." He later compared Acta to Jim Leyland in how the longtime manager also struggled early in his career but won once he "had the horses." Bowden then added, "I believe when Manny Acta gets the horses, Manny Acta will win."
But it's possible no discussions have been had about the configuration of the Nationals' leadership hierarchy for next season, especially when Bowden's future has been thrown into some question. It's also possible the front office is leaving itself some wiggle room in case either Kasten or Bowden decides to make a change.
The sense here is that Acta's job is relatively safe heading into the 2009 season. He is well respected in the organization for how he's continued to mold young players through a seemingly endless wave of injuries this season, and the team doesn't seem to be ready to change course in the middle of its building phase. Also, if the Nationals let him go, Acta could wind up with the New York Mets within minutes.
But watch what happens in the next few weeks. It could say plenty about what's expected of him next year.
In the last week of the 2007 season, the Nationals picked up Acta's option for 2009, giving the manager a vote of confidence after he wrung as much optimism as he possibly could out of a 73-89 season.
Washington's 90th loss came Wednesday night, guaranteeing its record will be worse than last season's. Bowden didn't take it as a sign the Nationals' goal of developing young players has backtracked.
"The only thing that matters is whether you get to the postseason or not. When you look at the standings, it's like a dog race. The view is the same for all of them except the front dog," Bowden said. "And we're all just trying to be the front dog, so we don't have to look at that view. That view smells."
Horses, dogs. All the talk about building for the future provides indirect support for Acta, but if the Nationals pick up his 2010 option before the season ends, it would legitimize the idea that the team is still committed to him for the long run.
If they don't pick up Acta's option, the Nationals' front office would send just as strong a message. The manager has largely been above criticism for most of his first two years, but the emergence of hitters like Jesus Flores, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes as part of the team's core along with Ryan Zimmerman will have Bowden and Co. expecting improvement next year.
There are still more horses Bowden needs to get, but a group of four 23-year-old hitters (even if one is always a risk to let his temper get the best of him) is a good start. And then there's pitcher John Lannan, who has turned himself into a bona-fide member of a major league rotation this year.
Not exercising Acta's option would send the message that the Nationals' front office wants to see how well he can keep the group moving forward before they commit to another season. He essentially will be in a contract year, trying to get the 2010 option picked up as soon as he could, and Acta would have a new level of pressure on him.
Do the Nationals want to position themselves that way? It's hard to tell. But the coming weeks should spell it out.