- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

The Washington Nationals’ brain trust convenes Monday in Indianapolis for baseball’s winter meetings with the same patient confidence they’ve had the entire offseason, something that seems out of place on baseball’s worst team but could be wholly justified given the progress they’ve already made reshaping a ramshackle leadership structure.

General manager Mike Rizzo has, by his count, hired more than a dozen baseball people to burnish a front office that was undermanned and sometimes wayward during former GM Jim Bowden’s tenure. Among the additions are former Atlanta Braves scouting director Roy Clark (the Nationals’ new vice president of player personnel), ex-Pittsburgh Pirates operations director Bryan Minniti (the new assistant GM) and former Cleveland Indians scout Doug Harris (who will be director of player personnel in Washington). Rizzo boosted the front office with so many well-respected officials that manager Jim Riggleman is excited for the week just to watch the group work together.

“I’ve been looking forward to these meetings, to get with Mike and his new staff members and really kind of put my opinion in there,” Riggleman said. “But I’ll do mostly a lot of listening. We’ve got some new sets of eyes. When you get all of your baseball people in the same room, good baseball conversation takes place.”

And then there’s this: While the Nationals expect to improve from a 103-loss season - and will look to add a veteran pitcher or two to help them do it - no one in the upper reaches of management envisions the kind of drastic turnaround that would make them contenders in 2010.

So the Nationals enter the winter meetings with a tidy shopping list, the expectation that a tepid economic outlook will again delay most activity until after the first of the year and the goal of simply laying groundwork for what they need to accomplish by the time pitchers and catchers report Feb. 19, not by the time the meetings end Thursday.

“A lot of what will happen there will be kind of setting the tone for something that may actually take place on paper after the new year,” Riggleman said. “You’re formulating a lot of good ideas, exchanging names with other clubs. You might tweak it around a little bit. Maybe there’s a deal that can be made, conversations with an agent that can be had. The groundwork will be done in Indianapolis.”

The Nationals’ wish list for the offseason doesn’t indicate a lot of adjustments to come for the worst team in baseball two years running. They would like to acquire a veteran starter or two and an experienced catcher who can start if Jesus Flores isn’t back from shoulder surgery by the team the season starts. They would like a long reliever, but Riggleman said he feels comfortable enough with the progress Tyler Clippard and Jason Bergmann made that he isn’t pining for a new bullpen.

And they’re hopeful that Cristian Guzman can be the answer at second base. Or perhaps they’re resigned to the likelihood that the 31-year-old shortstop, who is being moved because of declining defensive range, will be with them all year because his $8 million salary makes him an unattractive trade candidate.

Whatever the reasons, the Nationals likely will make only a few tweaks to the roster before spring training. If they do make moves this week, it’s more likely they would strike a deal than sign a free agent, especially because economic reservations could produce a larger-than-usual list of players not tendered a contract for 2010 and the chance for some bargains once that list is finalized next weekend.

In keeping with the theme of the offseason, though, nobody in the Nationals’ front office is in any hurry.

“When you get that many baseball people in the same building, you hear a lot of good hot stove topics, some rumors go around that are pretty interesting,” Riggleman said. “Things are said that you hadn’t thought about, and it moves something along in your mind. You just get a lot of information. When you get that many baseball people around, things are happening. Sometimes your club is the one involved.”

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