- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2008

LAS VEGAS | The Washington Nationals began baseball’s winter meetings with a cautious approach Monday. In addition to their well-publicized top goal - acquiring a left-handed slugger, possibly free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira - several other initiatives emerged.

General manager Jim Bowden said the Nationals had met with four teams about trades by early Monday evening, as well as several free agents. He wouldn’t go into specifics, nor would he comment on the team’s pursuit of Teixeira. But there were hints that in addition to wooing a slugger, the Nationals could be making waves in several other areas this week.

Most notably, the future of Nick Johnson in Washington appears as unclear as ever. Both Bowden and manager Manny Acta said the injury-plagued first baseman, whose season ended in May with a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist, is expected to be ready for spring training. But while Bowden said he could envision a scenario in which Johnson begins the season as the starter, Acta sounded less sure.

“You guys are the witness of how much interest Nick Johnson gets, especially in these meetings, because everybody knows how good he is when he’s healthy,” Acta said. “But that being said, we all know the history. We just have to prepare ourselves, and that’s why we’re searching for a guy that can hit in the middle of the lineup and drive in some runs for us - because we just don’t know.”

Several teams reportedly have asked for Johnson’s medical records, including the Athletics last month. But the 29-year-old, who is due $5.5 million next season, is a big enough health risk that it’s unclear what kind of a return he would command before spring training.

“A healthy Nick Johnson is a tremendous player,” Bowden said. “This is a .400 on-base percentage player. He sees four pitches per at-bat, he’s a plus defender, he gives you good at-bats [and] he’s good in the clubhouse. Certainly, there would be a lot of interest in a healthy Nick Johnson from a lot of people, whether it be the Nationals or other teams.”

Bowden said most of Washington’s discussions centered around adding power hitters, pitching depth and bullpen help. But Acta pointed out a less-publicized possibility: that the Nationals might try to add a catcher to push Jesus Flores.

He said the team would like to add a veteran catcher to compete with Flores, at least to the point that the 24-year-old wouldn’t feel the job is “all his.”

“I don’t think that’s his makeup or his character [to relax], but we as managers always like to do that,” Acta said. “We’d like a guy that can give him a run for his money.”

Acta praised the job Wil Nieves did in a backup role last season. While the 31-year-old, who was roundly applauded for his work with the Nationals’ young pitchers, probably could be brought back cheaply, Acta said he didn’t see Nieves as a catcher who could press Flores.

“I don’t think a lot of people see that in Nieves. We see him as a backup,” Acta said. “We’re talking about a guy that Flores can feel, ‘Hey, if I don’t stay on top of my game, this guy can take my job.’”

There was little movement on the first day of winter meetings as teams tried to feel out the market in the wake of a recession that Bowden said has affected all 30 teams.

He wouldn’t discuss whether the Nationals are projecting lower revenues for the 2009 season but said the team is preparing itself for a “tremendous amount of possibilities without limitation.”

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