- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Jim Bowden looks at his projected starting rotation and sees no established names behind de facto ace John Patterson. He looks at his outfield and sees great uncertainty in left and center fields. And he looks at his bench and sees gaping holes.

But the Washington Nationals general manager won’t let any of that dupe him into signing stopgap solutions that don’t fit into the organization’s long-term plans. Even if it comes at the expense of the club’s immediate success.

“If we have to be a crawfish and take a step back to take two steps forward, we’ll be a crawfish,” Bowden said. “We’re open to that. We’re not going to lose focus of the long-term plan.”

So while the rest of the baseball world was actively pursuing free agents yesterday as the winter meetings started at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort, the Nationals were content to sit by and let everyone else throw millions of dollars into a market that has exploded over the last month.

Which isn’t to say Washington is trying to stay out of the spotlight altogether. Bowden did hold several trade discussions and, without revealing specifics, hinted he has been pulled in as a third party to some blockbuster negotiations.

The biggest name on the block these days is Manny Ramirez, who has worn out his welcome in Boston but is incredibly difficult to move because of the $38 million he’s owed over the next two years. The Los Angeles Dodgers were believed to be Ramirez’s strongest suitor, but it appears they’re no longer in the running. The San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Angels (among others) remain alternate options, but some might not have the wherewithal to pull off a deal without the help of a third club.

Enter the Nationals. If they can be used as a conduit between two teams and wind up with prospects in the end, they’re willing to get involved.

“When you’re at the winter meetings, people tend to be creative,” Bowden said. “It just kind of happens because we’re all here and interlinked. So we’ve always had the attitude that we’ll have an open mind and look at all transactions. Anything that helps us with our long-term plan, we have interest in.”

With no desire to jump into a free agent market he described as “stultified,” Bowden is spending most of his time at the meetings talking trades. He said three Nationals in particular (believed to include closer Chad Cordero) are drawing significant interest from other clubs, and though he’s not inclined to deal any of them, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

Bowden would prefer to find a willing taker for second baseman Jose Vidro, who may be the odd man out in a crowded middle infield but carries a moderately hefty price tag (two years, $16 million).

Washington also could be persuaded to trade outfielder Ryan Church, a 28-year-old who would seem to fit into the organization’s long-term plans yet has been told he will have to compete with top prospect Kory Casto and injury-prone veteran Alex Escobar for the starting left field job.

“He has good standing with the club,” Bowden insisted of Church. “We respect what he’s done in his minimal at-bats in the big leagues.”

Said new manager Manny Acta: “This will be an opportunity for him to come to spring training, grab that job and run with it. But certainly the other guys will get the chance to compete, too. We’re not giving anything to anybody here.”

Notes — Outfielder Jose Guillen formally signed a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Seattle Mariners yesterday, ensuring the Nationals will receive a supplemental draft pick as compensation for losing the “Type B” free agent. Washington also got two compensatory picks after losing slugger Alfonso Soriano, so the club now has five of the first 60 choices in next June’s amateur draft.

“That’s a good way to rebuild,” Bowden said, “especially after the draft we had last year.” …

Tim Abraham, the Nationals’ trainer the last two seasons, informed the club Sunday he is resigning to spend more time with his wife and infant child. Abraham, 35, had been with the organization since 2002. …

Acta will be honored with a celebration and parade in his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris on Dec. 15. Acta, the only Dominican native currently managing in the major leagues, also will conduct a tryout at the Nationals’ academy in San Cristobal two days later.

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