- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

On Sunday, the Washington Nationals basked in the glow of a season finale that was all about thanking a team and a fan base that exceeded everyone’s expectations.

On Monday, the feel-good story of the baseball season was an afterthought, and the reality of the Nationals’ situation sank in: This was a flawed team during the second half of the season, and it has countless decisions to make in the weeks and months before pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla., for spring training.

So while the eight postseason contenders prepared for a run at a World Series title yesterday, the Nationals went back to work.

General manager Jim Bowden, under contract until Oct. 31 or until a new owner decides to retain him, released three veterans (pitchers Antonio Osuna and John Halama and catcher Keith Osik) who didn’t figure into Washington’s plans and added three promising minor leaguers (third baseman Kory Casto, outfielder Frank Diaz and pitcher Armando Galarraga) to the 40-man roster.

These minor moves were the first indication that the Nationals — no matter who occupies the front office or the manager’s chair next year — are intent on improving on their 81-81 inaugural record.

“When I took this job, I said I’d operate each day as if I was here for the rest of my life, and I’ll continue to do that,” Bowden said Sunday. “Whether I’m here for two more hours, two more months or 10 more years, I’ll continue to make decisions under the parameters we’re given in the best interests over the long term for this franchise. That’s not going to change.”

If the approach is not going to change, the roster most certainly is. There’s only so much Bowden and manager Frank Robinson can do before Major League Baseball hands over control to one of the eight bidding ownership groups, but there is plenty they’d like to do.

There are pending free agents to re-sign (Esteban Loaiza, Hector Carrasco and Joey Eischen among others), players to get healthy (Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson, Livan Hernandez), position upgrades to consider (third base, shortstop) and free agents to pursue (Billy Wagner, Kevin Millwood, Brian Giles).

But before they can do any of that, the Nationals must answer this fundamental question: Are they a handful of roster moves from being a legitimate contender or do they need a complete overhaul?

“There’s a good base here. The foundation for this team is pretty solid,” said right-hander John Patterson. “You add a couple of key guys around that, some veteran guys that can help control some things around here, I think this team has a legitimate shot in the next three or four years.”

How much Bowden or a new GM decides to tweak the roster might depend in large part on how much the new owner is willing to increase the payroll. Washington began the year with a $50 million budget that by season’s end had swelled to $58 million thanks to increased revenue.

How high might that number go in 2006? Perhaps the new owner, wanting to make a real splash from the get-go, will give approval to push the payroll as high as $80 million. Or perhaps he’ll take the more fiscally sound route and keep it around $60 million.

That decision could play a huge role in the Nationals’ offseason plan and determine whether Bowden has the ability to eat some current players’ contracts in exchange for clearing them off the roster.

The two most likely candidates for such a transaction are third baseman Vinny Castilla and shortstop Cristian Guzman. Both were signed by Bowden last November to multi-year deals — Castilla for two years and $6.2 million and Guzman for four years and $16.8 million. Both underachieved this season and may not figure into Washington’s 2006 plans.

Bowden said in no uncertain terms Sunday that he believes 21-year-old Ryan Zimmerman is ready to be this club’s everyday third baseman. As such, the Nationals are expected to try to trade Castilla this winter, hoping another club will take on his remaining salary but perhaps being willing to eat some of the money themselves.

Guzman, who even with a late-season surge wound up batting a paltry .219, will be tougher to move, but Washington likely will try.

Trade talk won’t be limited to those two infielders. Bowden won’t hesitate to listen to offers for just about any player on his roster, including Johnson, Vidro and Brad Wilkerson, if he could acquire a prize bat or arm in return.

In fact, that seems to be the Nationals’ top offseason priority: acquiring by trade or free agency at least one or two star-caliber players — something the 2005 club lacked.

“It’s going to cost a lot to get the type of talent that you want,” Robinson said. “I would say if you can’t do it, then don’t try to make do with lesser players, because they can be very pricey. And they’re just a stop-gap fix. I’d rather pass and keep that money available for the following year. But it’s time to put some top talent together on this ballclub.”

That is perhaps the biggest ingredient missing from Washington’s current roster. There are no shortage of quality players under contract, but there are no stars.

And if the Nationals can add a star or two, perhaps 2006 will produce even greater thrills for local fans than this season did.

“At the end of the day, look at the whole picture and ask, ‘Are we better off than we were a year ago?’ ” Bowden said. “I think the answer is yes. Do we still have a long way to go to get to where this model franchise should be? Yes, we do.”

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