- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2008

For a ballclub that has struggled to garner attention from fans nationwide — not to mention locally — the Washington Nationals have managed to create a little buzz this off-season.

Nearly every mention the last two months of Mark Teixeira has included at least passing reference to the Nationals, the first time since this franchise arrived in the District that it has been connected with a free agent of that caliber.

The real question, of course, is not whether the Nationals deserve passing mention in the Teixeira sweepstakes but whether they can be considered legitimate contenders to land the star first baseman.

Washington should have a better feel for that — not to mention an assortment of other pressing offseason issues — by the time the winter meetings wrap up next week.

The Nationals head to Las Vegas dead-set on doing something to improve their fortunes following a 102-loss season. Signing Teixeira, a 28-year-old switch hitter who has averaged 36 homers, 121 RBI and a .290 average in six career seasons, would go a long way toward convincing naysayers this club is serious about winning.

Of course, free agency isn’t one-sided, and to date there have been few indications Teixeira is seriously interested in Washington over the other teams reaching out to him: the Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles.

Even if the Nationals meet agent Scott Boras’ lofty contract demands — $20 million a year for anywhere from seven to 10 years — Teixeira would have to prefer signing with the majors’ worst club in 2008 over perennial World Series contenders. Or, in the case of the Orioles, his hometown team. (Teixeira grew up in Severna Park, Md., rooting for Cal Ripken and Co.)

Washington front office officials have been mostly mum when it comes to questions about their top offseason targets, but they aren’t ruling out the possibility of a big free agent splash even though it seems counter to their stated plan for success.

“Our preference is to build our club through the draft and through trades,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “That’s first and foremost. But it would be stultified not to consider free agents, especially young free agents who can be considered part of winning long-term.”

Teixeira fits that description, but he’s not the only one. Indeed, outside observers believe the Nationals have a better shot at landing a different power hitter: Adam Dunn.

The 29-year-old Dunn doesn’t offer the complete package that Teixeira does - his career average is .247, he strikes out a ton and he’s a butcher with the glove at either first base or left field - but he would fill Washington’s need for a legitimate power threat in the heart of a lineup that didn’t have a 15-homer hitter last season.

Bowden drafted Dunn in 1998 when he was GM of the Reds and has had an eye on him since coming to Washington.

“The one high-profile guy I could see them landing is Dunn,” an executive from another National League club said. “But that’s still going to require some financial commitment from them.”

Dunn won’t command Teixeira money, but he earned $13 million last season while reaching the 40-homer barrier for the fifth straight year. Since assuming ownership of Nationals franchise in July 2006, the Lerner family hasn’t signed any player to a contract that exceeds $8 million in annual salary or $17.5 million in total value.

Among Washington’s other objectives is a veteran starting pitcher to help bolster a young rotation that, for now, includes John Lannan, Scott Olsen and Tim Redding. The club also needs a right-handed reliever to help set up burgeoning closer Joel Hanrahan.

The Nationals also will look to strike deals that clear up crowded positions on their roster. They have an abundance of outfielders in Lastings Millege, Elijah Dukes, Josh Willingham, Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena and Willie Harris and a pair of injury-prone, veteran first basemen in Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young.

Note - The Nationals hired John Philbin as strength and conditioning coach and Elizabeth Wheeler as physical therapist.

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