Nationals aim to build on surprising '07

Nationals aim to build on surprising '07

WASHINGTON -- During Spring Training, when everybody was picking his team to be historically bad, Nationals president Stan Kasten said the last time a team he was affiliated with was predicted to finish in last place was the 1991 Braves. That team went on to win the National League pennant.

It was Kasten's way of saying that the Nationals were not going to finish in last place and they were going to surprise people. Washington didn't win the pennant, but it ended up having a better record than the previous season and finished in fourth place in the NL East. It marked the first time since the 2003 season the organization didn't finish at the bottom of the division.

The 2007 season marked a new era. Gone was Frank Robinson as manager. In came the young and vibrant Manny Acta, who set the tone right away by bringing a positive attitude to the table.

Under Acta's leadership, the pitching and defense improved, and he never panicked when things went wrong. Acta knew going into the job that the Nationals were in a rebuilding mode, and he felt that yelling at players --- something that was often done during the Robinson era -- was counterproductive.

Don't get the wrong idea -- Acta let his players know when they were not playing the game the right way. He once yanked Ryan Church and Felipe Lopez out of a game for not hustling earlier in the year.

"Yelling, screaming, hitting and turning things around isn't going to help. I think by keeping calm, communicating, talking and not showing your emotions, it helps," Acta said. "I'm going to tell you right now, if this season turned into a disaster like a lot of people thought it was going to be, [not yelling and screaming] was going to be brought up.

"Yelling doesn't have anything to do with the result of the game. I'm the leader here, and it reflects on my players. Had I been throwing things around and turning [over] tables, that would have sent the wrong message."

The question now is: Can Acta guide the team to .500 or better next year? It will depend on the players the Nationals acquire during the offseason.

They need offense in the worst way after finishing last in the Major Leagues in runs scored. And it's clear that Washington needs another power bat to complement Wily Mo Pena and a leadoff hitter with a high on-base percentage. The team didn't receive much from Lopez and Nook Logan at the top of the lineup, and that's why Ryan Zimmerman had a tough time driving in runs.

A veteran presence would also do some good for the pitching staff. The young players such as Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann need someone to teach them how to win.

Kasten said the team most likely would not sign free agents for outrageous prices, so that means they are going to have to make trades to get what they want. He does, however, expect payroll to go up, but he doesn't know how much. The Nationals' Opening Day payroll for 2007 was $37 million.

Kasten is willing to have free agents sign reasonable contracts similar to the ones signed by infielders Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young. Both players signed two-year extensions worth $3.5 and $10 million, respectively.

NATIONALS SECOND-HALF TOP PERFORMANCES
9/4, WAS 4, FLA 3 -- Flores' walk-off
Jesus Flores' double brought in the tying and game-winning runs to give the Nationals their fourth straight victory.
Highlights: 400K
9/2, WAS 2, SF 1 --Zimmerman ends it
Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off single gave the Nats a victory after a stellar pitching duel between Matt Chico and Barry Zito.
Highlights: 400K
8/22, HOU 3, WAS 2 -- Logan's hill grab
Outfielder Nook Logan was unfazed by the infamous Tal's Hill in Minute Maid Park, making a stunning catch.
Highlights: 400K
8/19, NYM 8, WAS 2 --Pena's first homer
Wily Mo Pena made an instant impact in just his second game with the Nationals, going deep against the Mets.
Highlights: 400K
7/22, WAS 3, COL 0 -- Kearns' three-run homer
Austin Kearns breaks a scoreless tie to help give the Nationals a series win over the Rockies.
Highlights: 400K

"We'll be talking to everyone -- that I can promise you," Kasten said about free agents. "But I don't think going after the big free agents is a way to build this team. ... There are a top tier that will be overpaid, I imagine. For that reason, I wouldn't be interested in those players. There are a second tier of players. They also will be overpaid, but I wouldn't be interested in those because they are second-tier players."

If the Nationals don't get the players they want during the offseason, they must get better seasons from some of their position players. There is no doubt that right fielder Austin Kearns is a fundamentally sound player, but he has to do better than 16 home runs and 74 RBIs. The team already has a backup plan if Brian Schneider falters with the bat again, with Jesus Flores ready to take over.

"It's no secret we have five or six guys in our lineup who underachieved this year, in a way," Acta said. "It's kind of a domino effect. If we have a couple of guys around them, things will pick up."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.