- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Since the baseball winter meetings began Monday, Manny Acta has heard nothing but negative buzz surrounding the Washington Nationals’ immediate future.

Washington’s new manager doesn’t care. So what if no one at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Rest this week believes the Nationals can field a competitive team in 2007? In his heart, Acta believes otherwise.

“I want to shock the world,” he said yesterday. “I want to play over .500 and be playing meaningful games at the end of the season. I just cannot walk into this situation and right off the bat pencil myself into last place. I don’t care what anybody says.”

Bold words from the majors’ newest — and youngest — manager, who inherits a team in the midst of a rebuilding program with no plans to spend any money on free agents this winter.

But team president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden didn’t hire Acta because he lacked confidence. From the moment the 37-year-old interviewed for the job in late October, he impressed his new bosses with his positive vision for the organization moving forward.

So while observers around these meetings this week are predicting 100-plus losses from the 2007 Nationals, Acta thinks the sky is the limit.

“That’s the way I am,” he said. “I’m optimistic. I believe it’s 25 vs. 25 every single day. I believe my guys can have a good day every single day.”

The roster Acta inherited from ex-manager Frank Robinson is littered with holes, particularly in the starting rotation. And though Bowden has spent every waking moment at the winter meetings trying to plug those holes, there were further indications yesterday there are no quick fixes on the horizon.

Bowden reiterated he won’t be pursuing any free agents of consequence, believing it would be a waste of the team’s resources to overspend for mediocre starting pitchers that won’t perform much better than the young pitchers already on Washington’s major and minor league rosters.

The only way the Nationals might acquire starters would be via trade, and despite continued talks yesterday, no deals appeared imminent. Bowden has spent most of his time talking about three available players: closer Chad Cordero, second baseman Jose Vidro and outfielder Ryan Church.

The Red Sox remain interested in Cordero, either straight-up from the Nationals or as part of a three-way deal that would send Manny Ramirez out west. Washington, though, will deal the 24-year-old closer only if he brings a quality, young starting pitcher in return.

Church, who may have fallen out of the team’s favor, remains in high demand, with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs among those interested, according to baseball sources. Again, the Nationals are asking for a young starting pitcher in return.

Washington is not finding any interest in Vidro, however, and that could leave Acta in an awkward position come February. He has three veteran middle infielders on the roster (Vidro, Felipe Lopez and Cristian Guzman) but only two available spots.

The front office’s preferred scenario would have Guzman returning from injury to play shortstop and Lopez switching to second base, leaving Vidro out of the mix. Acta, however, revealed yesterday he still sees the deteriorating 32-year-old as an integral part of his team, one who would be in his lineup every day as long as he remains on the roster.

“Absolutely. I don’t see why not,” said Acta, who envisions Vidro hitting second behind Lopez and in front of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “He’s got the track record. And despite people considering he had a down year, he did still hit around .290 and got on base. He was coming back from a knee injury, too, so two years removed from that, maybe he’ll be back to where he was.”

Acta reiterated that he looks at Nook Logan as the leading candidate to start in center field but plans to keep the speedster down in the lineup to keep pressure off him. Church (assuming he’s not traded) would face competition from Alex Escobar and minor leaguer Kory Casto for the left field job.

Acta envisions a wide-open competition next spring for four of the five spots in his rotation, with only de facto ace John Patterson assured of a job. Among those in the mix will be returning starters Mike O’Connor, Shawn Hill, Billy Traber and Beltran Perez, minor leaguer Matt Chico and recent additions Tim Redding, Colby Lewis and Joel Hanrahan.

“Our plan will probably be to split them out during spring training and let them battle it out,” Acta said.

Acta has no plans to convert Jon Rauch into a starter, though, preferring to keep the 6-foot-11 reliever in a fairly deep bullpen that at the moment includes Cordero, Luis Ayala, Ryan Wagner and Saul Rivera.

“That’s a key part of the game, too,” the manager said. “Because if we end up with a bunch of young arms [in the rotation], I think the middle innings are going to be very important for us.”

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