- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2007

They have pitching (or, at least, they appear to have pitching). Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, Tim Redding, John Lannan, Joel Hanrahan, Matt Chico and a bumper crop of young prospects give the Washington Nationals hope for 2008 and beyond.

They certainly have a bullpen built to win in Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala, Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome and Chris Schroder.

And they have a nice core of complementary position players in Ryan Zimmerman, Dmitri Young (and/or Nick Johnson), Ronnie Belliard, Wily Mo Pena, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Brian Schneider (and/or Jesus Flores).

What the Nationals don”t have, however, is a true offensive superstar. The kind of hitter a team can build its entire lineup around. A 40-homer, 120-RBI behemoth who has the respect of his teammates and strikes fear in opponents.

Oh, and if he happened to play center field, no one would complain.

As their season draws to a close, the Nationals” top offseason priority should be clear: They need a big-time center fielder.

Most every other position around the diamond is set (or at least has a pool of candidates from which to choose). Zimmerman is entrenched at third base, either Young or Johnson will play first base. Some combination of Belliard, Lopez and Cristian Guzman will man the middle infield. Schneider again will catch, with some help from Flores.

Kearns is locked up as the right fielder. Pena appears to be the left fielder (unless Ryan Church suddenly makes the career leap he has yet to discover).

So that leaves center field as the one gaping hole in Washington”s lineup.

What about Nook Logan, who has turned his season around since the All-Star break (hitting .298 with 10 stolen bases)? Club officials aren”t convinced this is for real. And even if it is, does Logan really fit the profile? He still doesn”t get on base enough — he has drawn only 10 walks since the All-Star break — and his defense has been suspect — anybody see that botched fly ball to the warning track Saturday night?

Besides, the Nationals don”t need slap-hitting speedsters. They need a big bopper. After all, this team has scored the fewest runs in baseball (less than four a game), has hit the second-fewest home runs and has produced the lowest slugging percentage.

Washington”s front office knows this is a good winter to be in the market for a center fielder, with several pending free agents about to become available.

Andruw Jones headlines that list, and even after a subpar season by his standards, he figures to be the Nationals” top target. Torii Hunter and Aaron Rowand also are free agents, quality players each, though neither is a cleanup hitter in Jones” mold. Japan”s Kosuke Fukudome remains another option, though he”s not considered a top power hitter.

So get ready for a lot of Andruw talk over the next few months. Nationals president Stan Kasten knows him well from their days together in Atlanta; Kasten even managed to sign Jones to an extension several years ago by negotiating directly with the player and not with uber-agent Scott Boras.

Jones will not come cheap. If Alfonso Soriano was worth $17 million a year, Jones will be worth more. That”s a major investment, one the Nationals have yet to make since coming to town three seasons ago.

But Kasten and Co. have insisted all along they plan to start acting like a big-market club as soon as they move into their new ballpark. Big-market clubs go after Andruw Jones.

And winning clubs have a bona-fide bopper in the heart of their lineup, the kind of game-changer who can help a burgeoning young team take the next step toward contention.

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