- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The Washington Nationals dispersed around the country yesterday, players, coaches and others heading home for the winter following a frustrating season that ended with a weekend-long tribute to now-former manager Frank Robinson.

They won’t be together again until mid-February, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Viera, Fla., and the whole process begins anew.

But back at RFK Stadium, the real work began yesterday. General manager Jim Bowden, under the guidance of team president Stan Kasten, kicked off his most important part of the year: the offseason.

There’s no shortage of issues for Bowden to address during the next four and a half months. His club just posted a 71-91 record, finishing last in the National League East division for the third straight year, and very little about next year has been established.

The Nationals can take some solace knowing they’ll be bringing back a small but strong nucleus of key players: Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, Brian Schneider, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, John Patterson and Chad Cordero. But almost everything else for next season remains uncertain.

Bowden and his troops will be kept plenty busy over the winter. Here, though, are the five issues that take precedence before everything else:

Hire a new manager

The club’s first order of business is the most obvious one. With Robinson’s departure, the Nationals must decide who will lead the team in 2007.

Neither Bowden nor Kasten will reveal specifics about their gameplan, but indications are the two will conduct a comprehensive search for the new manager and don’t necessarily feel an urgency to get it done immediately.

That could change in a hurry, though, if the rest of the open managerial market fires up as it appears it might. The Florida Marlins are expected to officially fire Joe Girardi today and name Atlanta Braves third base coach Fredi Gonzalez as his replacement, which could set off a chain of events that significantly affects the Nationals.

Both Girardi and Gonzalez were expected to be candidates for the Washington job, and with Girardi a hot name around the sport, Bowden could feel pressure to move quick and try to secure a guy who may win NL Manager of the Year.

Regardless who the Nationals end up with, they must make the right decision here. This one will have a lasting effect on almost everything else that takes place at RFK during the next year and at the new ballpark after that.

Decide on re-signing Soriano

If the managerial search is priority No. 1, this is easily No. 1a. From the moment they acquired him from the Texas Rangers last winter, the Nationals knew this decision eventually would have to be made. Alfonso Soriano had just one year on his contract and is now due to become a free agent 15 days after conclusion of the World Series.

The organization must decide whether it really wants to keep Soriano for the next several seasons, and if so, how much it is willing to spend on him. Soriano, who turns 31 in January, is going to command a huge contract on the open market after a record-breaking 40-40 season, and consensus is that he’s not likely to return.

If Washington feels Soriano is the man to lead them to the promised land, it has to be willing to make a competitive offer for him (perhaps back-loading the deal so the bulk of the money isn’t paid out until the team is bringing in more revenue in the new ballpark).

If, however, Washington decides it’s not worth investing so much in one player, it shouldn’t get caught in a bidding war with other clubs. Rather, it should be willing to let Soriano walk and accept two compensatory draft picks in return to fill the void.

Fix the pitching staff

The steady decline of the Nationals’ pitching staff from 2005 to 2006 was remarkable. What used to be one of the better staffs in the NL has become one of the worst, especially in a starting rotation that doesn’t have one guaranteed cog heading into next year.

For now, Patterson (who only made eight starts this season before undergoing forearm surgery) is the de facto ace. There’s no guarantee he’ll return to form and re-establish himself as a front-line pitcher.

So the Nationals must figure out how to build a competent staff around him. Mike O’Connor, 26, and Beltran Perez, 24, proved they deserve a shot to win jobs, but nothing more. Veterans Ramon Ortiz, Pedro Astacio and Tony Armas proved they are not worth re-signing.

Would Bowden be willing to make a run at one of the top-tier free agent pitchers about to hit the market (Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, Mark Buehrle)? Perhaps, though quantity might be more important than quality.

The Nationals might be better served signing several second- or third-tier starters for less money, then re-signing injured right-hander Brian Lawrence to an incentive-based contract and inviting him back to round out the staff.

Revamp the front office

For the first time, the Nationals enter the offseason with an owner. And that means the organization finally can start acting like every other major league franchise, setting up a full front-office staff, with assistant general managers, scouts and minor league coordinators.

The club already has made some strides in that department. Look for plenty more to be announced once the postseason is over and the Nationals are allowed to raid other club’s talent evaluators.

Settle middle infield logjam

In terms of pure, on-field issues, this one tops the Nationals’ list. Heading into 2007, the club has three veteran middle infielders (Jose Vidro, Felipe Lopez and Cristian Guzman) and only two available positions (second base and shortstop).

The dilemma is created because Guzman is returning from a season-long shoulder injury (not to mention he’s still owed $8.4 million over the next two years). Vidro, too, has two years left on his contract for a hefty $16 million. Lopez will be entering his second season of arbitration.

So who’s the odd man out? Guzman would seem to be the logical choice at first, because he was terribly unproductive before he got hurt. But the Nationals may still believe he’s capable of turning it around, and besides, he is going to be tough to move.

So Vidro may be the least likely to return. Despite his veteran status and decent offensive stats, his best days are clearly behind him. If Bowden can find a taker for him this winter, don’t be surprised if Vidro is dealt, Lopez is moved to second base and Guzman returns to play shortstop.

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