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In search of a slugger

There is so much the Washington Nationals need to do to right the ship that nearly capsized this season. No team that loses 102 games vows to stand pat and see if the status quo is good enough to turn things around.

The 2008 season wasn't even officially completed Sunday when general manager Jim Bowden announced sweeping changes to the club's coaching staff, retaining only manager Manny Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire. Bowden made it clear more changes are coming in the four months leading up to the start of spring training.

New coaches will be hired. Front-office personnel could be altered. Members of the current roster could be cut loose.

But above all else, the Nationals realize in order for this franchise's 2009 squad to perform better than the 2008 one did, on-field talent must be brought in from elsewhere.

Bowden and Acta have their perfect world wish lists: a big bopper in the middle of the lineup, a No. 1 (and possibly No. 2) starting pitcher and a veteran reliever. The likelihood of acquiring all those pieces, of course, is minimal.

Not only would Washington have to fork over tens of millions of dollars to top-tier free agents - a strategy contrary to the one laid out by ownership - it would have to convince those star players to sign with an organization that is perceived around baseball as being in disarray.

So all those fans who dream of an Opening Day 2009 lineup that includes Mark Teixeira at first base, Manny Ramirez in left field and CC Sabathia on the mound had better think again.

That said, the Nationals do believe they can make some important additions to their roster. And if there is one priority that stands above the rest, it is this: a bona fide slugger for the heart of their lineup.

No one on Washington's roster hit 15 homers or drove in 62 runs this season, a fact no other major league franchise could claim. Injuries obviously contributed to the low offensive totals, but it didn't help that the Nationals lacked one established hitter with a track record of production.

The need for such a player is twofold. Obviously, he would contribute immensely himself at the plate. But he would also take pressure off his young teammates who were (perhaps unfairly) asked to carry this club in 2008.

"We need some help in our lineup," Acta said. "If you look back to 2006 when [Ryan] Zimmerman had that great season, he wasn't the main focus of this team. It was Alfonso Soriano. I really want to get to a point where some of those kids can just go out there and play and have some weight lifted off their shoulders."

Zimmerman's offensive numbers surely were hurt this season by a lack of protection around him. Acta used nine different cleanup hitters; no one held the No. 4 spot in the lineup more than 35 times over 161 games. Thirteen different players hit fifth. Sixteen different players hit sixth.

Finding some sense of stability in the heart of the order is perhaps the organization's No. 1 task this winter.

The Nationals would be aided by a healthy roster at long last, with players like Zimmerman, Elijah Dukes and Nick Johnson available for a full season. But the organization isn't counting on any of that happening, so Bowden is acknowledging the club will be in the market for a first baseman and/or outfielder during the offseason.

Can one key offensive addition turn an entire club around? Probably not. But the Nationals know there could be a trickle-down effect from such a move.

And that, combined with the expected development of core young players, could help Washington take an all-important first step in erasing the bad memory of 2008 and perhaps putting the organization closer to the winning season it so desperately seeks.

"I can't put the timetable on [winning] because I don't know what trades you make, what signings you do," Bowden said. "There are too many intangibles you can't jump into. ... Normally when you have the talent, though, it shows up here and that results in wins. As you add pieces around them, the wins start to come."

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