- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On the one hand, Adam Dunn looks at the Washington Nationals’ just-completed season and has a hard time finding any silver lining.

“It was terrible. It was horrible,” the first baseman said. “You lose 100 freaking games, you obviously didn’t do very good.”

On the other hand, Dunn looks at a Nationals roster that produced a 59-103 record and sees little need to make anything more than a couple of calculated changes this winter to produce a far different result in 2010.

“That’s the number one thing you take out of this season: We’re really not that far off,” he said. “If we were, I would tell you. I’m not going to blow smoke. I really know we’re a couple of pieces away from being really good.”

Such is the dilemma the Nationals now face as they put the misery of the past year behind them and turn their attention toward the future. Most 103-loss clubs feel the need to blow things up and start from scratch - or at the very least make some major changes across the organization.

But nearly everyone employed by the Nationals - from the front office to the coaching staff to the clubhouse - agrees a massive shakeup isn’t necessary.

“No, I don’t see a mass blowing up of the ballclub,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “I think we have a lot of good, core pieces in place. I’m excited about the youth and the players we can control over a long period of time who are going to be on the team in 2010. I think a few shrewd, strategic moves in some key areas will improve the ballclub for 2010.”

Before he can delve too deep into improving his roster, Rizzo must first decide who will be guiding those players from the top dugout step next season. The first-time GM plans to conduct a calculated managerial search, not nearly as wide-ranging as the one that landed Manny Acta three years ago out of a pool of more than a dozen candidates.

Rizzo said interim manager Jim Riggleman, who guided the club to a 33-42 record after Acta was fired during the All-Star break, is a “definite” candidate for the job. But he also intends to speak with several other candidates over the next few weeks, hoping to find the one who best fits his criteria for a good manager.

“I want him to be a well-rounded baseball guy,” Rizzo said. “Obviously, he has to be a strategic-type manager that’s really good with the X’s and O’s. Knows how to handle a pitching staff. Has the respect of the players on the field and in the clubhouse. We want a communicator who’s out amongst the players with an open-door policy. And a guy who has a passion for it and lives and breathes the game.”

Rizzo’s No. 1 on-field priority this winter is to find reinforcements for a pitching staff that posted the National League’s worst ERA (5.00) while using 12 starters and 18 relievers. John Lannan (9-13, 3.88 ERA) was the only member of the staff to make more than 20 starts or pitch more than 106 innings, and the organization knows the young left-hander needs some reliable arms alongside him.

So the Nationals will jump headfirst into a deep free agent pool that could include as many as 13 veteran starters who pitched at least 175 innings this year.

One of those veterans, Livan Hernandez, finished the year strong for Washington, recording six quality starts in eight outings and making a case to return in 2010. Hernandez has made it clear he wants to come back, not only because of his history with the organization - he was the ace of Washington’s inaugural 2005 squad that contended for a playoff berth - but also because he sees hope for similar success in the not-too-distant future.

“We can win next year,” Hernandez said. “We’ve got to remember 2005: We got a good team, and we go in there fighting and fighting. I think this is a good-hitting team. We have to put everything together, pitching and hitting, and we can win a lot of games and we can be there fighting for first place.”

The Nationals’ other offseason needs are fairly straightforward. They want to add another reliable reliever to a bullpen that was wretched early in the year but finally found its groove late behind closer Mike MacDougal (20-for-21 in save opportunities) and setup men Tyler Clippard (2.69 ERA in 41 games), Sean Burnett (3.20 ERA in 33 games) and Jason Bergmann (3.38 ERA after the All-Star break).

Rizzo also seeks a defensively gifted middle infielder (perhaps a veteran shortstop who would allow Cristian Guzman to move to second base) and some insurance at catcher in case Jesus Flores’ surgically repaired shoulder isn’t fully healed by Opening Day.

If they can pull off those moves, if their young pitching continues to develop as expected and if more reinforcements from their farm system (like first-round picks Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen) pay off immediate dividends, the Nationals feel like they’ll be much better off in 2010.

There will be pressure to produce tangible signs of improvement after 205 combined losses the last two years, but members of the organization know they still face a long road toward realistic contention and that even a couple of well-timed acquisitions aren’t likely to produce a 180-degree turnaround in one year.

“I’m not satisfied with our won-loss record. I don’t think anybody in this organization is,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to make plans to improve that record next year. But like I’ve said in the past, all the decisions I make are for 2010 and beyond. We can’t be short-sighted and just look at a snapshot of 2010.”

Note - Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, pitched in a professional game for the first time in the Nationals’ instructional league Monday. Strasburg, working two innings in Viera, Fla., allowed one run on three hits in two innings, striking out two and throwing 19 of his 25 pitches for strikes. He pitched out of a jam in the second inning, and his impressive fastball was on display for a national audience, which could watch live clips of the start on ESPN. Strasburg will go to the Arizona Fall League later this month.

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