- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | Manny Acta sat in his office last season and signed his name to 133 different starting lineups. His most common starting eight was used only six times, and that combination included Emilio Bonifacio leading off, Austin Kearns hitting cleanup and Ronnie Belliard at first base.

Suffice it to say the Washington Nationals manager isn’t too worried about having to use that lineup in 2009.

If anything, Acta isn’t much worried at all this spring about putting together his lineup, thanks to the wealth of viable options he now has at his disposal.

“Our lineup right now is not my biggest concern,” he said. “We still were in the bottom [of the league in] hitting last year, and I’m not saying that I’m not worried because we’re going to be on top. But we have options now. We have enough guys for me not to have to worry about that kind of stuff.”

Acta is able to sit around these days and toy with dozens of different lineup combinations. He could string Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn together in the heart of his order. He could start an outfield of Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge and Josh Willingham. Or he could bench all three and go instead with Kearns, Dunn and Willie Harris.

He could hit Cristian Guzman first or second, Milledge second or sixth, Johnson anywhere from second through sixth. The possibilities are endless.

Just don’t ask Acta to settle on a firm Opening Day lineup.

“It’s too early,” he said Tuesday. “Stop it. I’ve got about 50 lineups for you. You know what - before now and Opening Day, a lot of things can change.”

The only thing Acta will concede at this point is that he intends to hit Zimmerman third and Dunn fourth… for now. He reserves the right to change his mind about that.

No matter what their manager ultimately settles on, the Nationals know what the end result will be.

“A lot of damage,” Johnson said.

After a miserable season in which Washington ranked among the worst offenses in baseball in runs scored a game (3.98), batting average (.251), on-base percentage (.323) and home runs (117), the organization went about revamping the unit.

The additions of Dunn (who signed as a free agent for two years and $20 million) and Willingham (who was picked up in a November trade with the Florida Marlins) surely stand out as major changes. But equally important, the Nationals say, are the returns of several key players who missed large chunks of 2008 with injuries. Johnson was sidelined 4 1/2 months with a tear in his wrist, Zimmerman sat out two months with a tear in his shoulder and Dukes, Milledge, Kearns and Wily Mo Pena each missed substantial time with their own ailments.

The fact that all those players are back and healthy this spring, combined with the additions, leaves Washington players confident their offensive fortunes will change in 2009.

“I mean, you know it’s going to be better,” said Milledge, who led last year’s team with 14 homers and 61 RBI. “The fact is, we just have to be healthy, myself included. We all know. It’s not a secret that with the addition of Dunn and the addition of Nick now, the lineup’s going to be better.”

But who’s going to actually be a part of that lineup once April rolls around? It takes only a quick glance at the Nationals’ overcrowded roster to realize there are far more candidates than available jobs.

No fewer than eight players can make a case for consideration for starting jobs at the three outfield positions and first base: Johnson, Dunn, Milledge, Dukes, Kearns, Willingham, Harris and Pena. Only four can be in the lineup at a time, and perhaps only six can even make the team.

Which means at least two members of that group may be staring at a late-spring trade or outright release.

“I mean, everybody’s got to compete for a job,” Milledge said. “But when it’s all said and done, you’re not only playing for yourself and this team. You’re also playing for other teams as well. … If there’s not enough room here, then there’s 29 other teams.”

The player whose name most often comes up in trade talk is Johnson, who because of his injury history has proved unreliable over the years. Then again, when healthy, the veteran first baseman is one of the most productive players in the league, boasting a career .396 on-base percentage.

The prospect of a Johnson-Dunn lineup combo “makes a lot of guys salivate, including myself,” Acta said. But such a combo would force Dunn to left field, preventing another outfielder from making the cut.

Acta must consider all that when formulating lineups in the next six weeks. Of course, it’s a dilemma the Washington manager is happy to face after spending the last two years cobbling together scraps.

And if nothing else, there’s one guy who knows he’s both going to be a regular at the top of the Nationals’ new-look lineup and reap some major rewards of his position.

“I’ve got all these guys behind me, so maybe I can score more runs,” leadoff man Guzman said with a smile. “That’s pretty good.”

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