- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

They defied expectations all season, avoiding the label of “worst team in the major leagues” by far and earning respect around the sport after finishing 73-89 and out of the cellar in the National League East.

The Washington Nationals‘ 2007 season was — as anyone in the organization will attest — an unmitigated success. Not because this club avoided 100 losses but because the entire organization made significant strides in its long-term rebuilding effort.

The barren farm system was restocked with a bevy of high-ceiling prospects. The big league club identified several key pieces for the future, as well as a young manager who figures to lead these players for years to come. Ownership stepped up to the table and committed the necessary resources to fund all of it, from draft picks to international scouting to contract extensions for major league veterans.

But as the Nationals wrapped up their season Sunday in Philadelphia and went their separate ways for the winter, there already was talk within the clubhouse about what lies ahead for this team.

Suffice it to say, few will be satisfied with 73 wins in 2008. Starting with the manager.

“I want to get, without a doubt, to .500 and above,” Manny Acta said. “That should be the realistic goal here. Just looking at what has happened in baseball the last few years, if you get over .500, anything can happen.”

Yes, the Nationals are ready to make the leap from spunky, second-tier club to fringe contender. They won’t come right out and say they believe they can catch the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets atop the division, but they do believe the next logical step in their development could involve a surprise run in their first season in their new ballpark.

The rationale behind these feelings isn’t absurd. Throw out the first six weeks of the 2007 season, when a Washington club besieged by injuries went 9-25 and looked ready to challenge the sport’s all-time records for futility. From May 11 through Sunday, the team went 64-64. That was the seventh-best record in the NL over that lengthy span, bested only by teams that were in pennant races (Mets, Phillies, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Padres and Rockies).

That’s why the Nationals feel — even without major roster changes this offseason — they can go 81-81 in 2008.

“If you look at from May on, we were a .500 club,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “If we could do it now, why can’t we do it next year?”

To be sure, there are plenty of obstacles standing in the way.

The Nationals must improve the majors’ least productive offense, one that ranked last in baseball in runs and near the bottom in every other significant statistical category. The lineup featured only two regulars who hit over .272 (Dmitri Young and Ronnie Belliard), only one player who hit more than 16 homers or recorded more than 74 RBI (Zimmerman) and no one who scored 100 runs.

Catcher Brian Schneider and infielder Felipe Lopez endured miserable offensive seasons, and Ryan Church and Austin Kearns needed strong second halves to salvage average seasonal numbers. The bench lacked any go-to guys for key pinch-hitting situations.

“Obviously, we know that we need to improve our offense,” Acta said. “We need to score more runs, and we’re aware of it. I think [general manager] Jim [Bowden] is going to do everything in his power to get us a guy who could hit in the middle of our lineup and help us out.”

Easier said than done. As much as Bowden covets a true cleanup hitter who could step right in and hit 40 homers with 120 RBI, he may not have the means to acquire that guy. Team president Stan Kasten has made it clear he doesn’t plan on pursuing top-tier free agents, believing money can be invested more wisely at this stage of the organization’s development.

The Nationals will look into every available player this winter, but they won’t shell out millions of dollars unless they believe said player can help them win in 2009, 2010 and beyond.

“We’re building. Long-term, sustained building,” Bowden said. “We’re not going to go get a piece thinking, ‘Oh, we can win an extra six games.’ That’s not what we’re doing here. We’re building long term and sustained. So any moves we can make that help build long term, we’re open to make it.”

Washington also will seek to improve a pitching staff that managed to overcome all sorts of injuries to keep this team competitive on a daily basis but still boasts few known quantities.

Right-handers Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann performed like top-of-the-rotation starters when healthy, but both missed about three months with various injuries. Rookie left-hander Matt Chico proved durable enough to make 31 starts but isn’t considered a front-line starter. Journeyman Tim Redding was a pleasant surprise and likely earned a spot for next season. Opening Day starter John Patterson, though, again was plagued by arm injuries and may or may not be tendered a contract this winter.

So Bowden, who brought 37 pitchers to camp last spring, again will scour the depths of the pitching world to find a couple of veteran arms who could help fill out the staff.

“There’s a few there in free agency,” the GM said. “There’s a few there maybe in trades. But again, it’s all tied into other things that you can and can’t do and how we spend our money. So it’s complicated.”

Veteran additions or not, the Nationals will continue to give their own prospects a chance to contribute. They weren’t afraid to let Chico, catcher Jesus Flores and left-hander John Lannan develop at the major league level this season, and they won’t be afraid to do similar things next season.

Outfielder Justin Maxwell wasn’t fazed by his September call-up from Class A Potomac and will be at the big league camp next spring. Class AAA Columbus right-hander Collin Balester will get a look as well, and lower-level prospects like outfielder Chris Marrero and left-hander Ross Detwiler (who made one appearance for Washington in September) could be prime candidates for late-season 2008 promotion.

The transition from RFK to the new ballpark along the Anacostia River will have an effect on the franchise, tangibly (smaller outfield dimensions should result in more offense) and emotionally (larger crowds, better facilities).

Put all that together and Nationals players are far more encouraged about the state of the franchise now than they were even six months ago.

“A lot more,” Young said. “I thought we had a decent team, but we were a lot better than decent. Yeah, we need a few pieces here, a few pieces there. But the chemistry we have here from guys who love to play the game, that may make it attractive for free agents.”

So in 2008, it won’t be “The Drive to Avoid 100 Losses.” Maybe it’s time for “The Push for 82 Wins.”

“We’re a team on the rise,” Bergmann said. “I think we played well enough against our division rivals in September that we can be considered a contender the next couple years.

“They’re going to do some great things with this franchise. Bowden and [owner Mark] Lerner, they know what they’re doing here. Stan has built it with the Braves before. They’re going to put some money in. There will be some new players here probably. We’ve got a new stadium. They’re going to want to put a winner out there.

“I think we could do it.”

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