Q&A with manager Manny Acta

Q&A with manager Manny Acta

After guiding the Nationals to a 73-89 record in 2007, manager Manny Acta had every reason to believe that the team would be even better in 2008. General manager Jim Bowden acquired outfielders Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes and catcher Paul Lo Duca in the offseason and all three were expected to spark the offense.

But things didn't get better. The team ended up with the worst record in the Major Leagues. It didn't help that the Nationals put players on the disabled list 30 times, had an inconsistent offense and erratic defense.

The Nationals started preparing for next season on Sunday morning when they told five of Acta's coaches that they wouldn't be back for the 2009 season.

MLB.com caught up with Acta to talk about 2008 what's on the docket for next year.

MLB.com: How trying was this season for you?

Acta: It was tough, but we all know that success is at the end of the road and you have to go through difficulties. This was one more trial for me as a manager. I'll come out of this as a better manager and a better person. I say a better manager, because I really had to stay on top of everything -- really manage full-time to win every single game instead of sitting and folding my arms and letting things develop.

MLB.com: You managed some difficult teams when you were with the Astros organization. How would you compare those teams to the 2008 Nationals?

Acta: The difference was that the Nationals weren't supposed to be bad coming out of Spring Training. A lot of things happened, things that we couldn't control. You have to adjust on the fly and improvise. It was tough.

In the Minor Leagues, it runs in cycles, and the talented team moved up to the next level that year. With the Nationals, it has been a revolving door because of everything we have gone through.

MLB.com: What was your biggest problem this year?

Acta: Our biggest problem was finding run producers in the middle of our lineup and the demise of our defense after the first two months of the season. It was shocking to go from the top three in defense all the way to the bottom. When you don't have that much offense and you can't catch a ball, it's a bad combination.

MLB.com: Let's talk about the offense. Why was it so bad?

Acta: A lot of it had to do with the guys getting hurt. So much was expected out of the young guys when the experience guys like Dmitri Young, Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns went out. I think it was a little too much that the younger guys had to carry all that weight. There were a lot of guys that were supposed to settle in the seventh hole or eighth hole and just play. They were pressured into tough spots. They couldn't handle it on an everyday basis.

MLB.com: The only hitter who came through all season was Cristian Guzman.

Acta: I'm happy for him. He showed those flashes last year before he got hurt. I'm totally convinced that the Lasik surgery was the key. He has been nothing but a .300 hitter ever since. Despite him being a free swinger, Guzman sees the ball better, makes better contact and even takes more pitches.

He really showed people that when he's healthy, he enjoys playing. He wants to play every day, works very hard and is very good in the clubhouse.

MLB.com: The media blamed hitting coach Lenny Harris for the lack of offense. Was that a fair assessment?

Acta: You know, he worked very hard with every one of these guys. It's very tough to blame him for what has happened because he didn't have the whole team here on a full-time basis. It's one of those Catch-22 things. It's very tough to really evaluate him under those circumstances. He was working with the guys, who were not supposed to start here every day.

MLB.com: Defense was one of the things that you stressed the moment you arrived after the 2006 season. What happened this year?

Acta: It was a total collapse. When you lose a guy like Ryan Zimmerman -- I always joke that he saves more runs for us than he drives in. We lost a guy like Johnson. We had to put six different guys at each position in the infield, and it's tough. I think it got better at the end because of the acquisitions of Emilio Bonifacio, Alberto Gonzalez and Anderson Hernandez to give us depth. When you are building like we are, there are certain pieces you can't afford to lose.

MLB.com: Going into Spring Training next year, what do you want to see your players do better?

Acta: Besides being healthy, I just want consistency on what we are trying to do here -- how to play the game. I want to improve our baserunning, which we did a little bit last year, but this year, we fell back a little bit. I don't know if it had anything to do with having so many different guys, but we need to get better going from first to third and reading balls in the dirt. There are certain things you need to do when you don't have the fire power in your middle lineup.

MLB.com: What do you think about your pitching staff going into next year?

Acta: We are very happy with the development of a couple of those young guys. I hope that these young guys continue to develop so we can add a couple of arms to give us a lift. There's so much pressure on John Lannan and guys like Collin Balester, Shairon Martis and Joel Hanrahan. Hopefully, we can add a few pieces during the offseason that can balance things out.

MLB.com: The team had so many injuries. What was your reaction when someone got hurt?

Acta: I've never seen anything like it. Every time an injury came up, I wasn't surprised. It got to a point where it was kind of ridiculous. I really don't like talking about it. It makes it sound like I'm making excuses. Johnson has a history, not everybody was shocked when he went down. But not being able to put your starting lineup on Opening Day on the field for no more than one day, it's shocking to me.

MLB.com: Hopefully, they will be healthier next year.

Acta: We are shooting for that, but that being said, I think we have learned a lesson and I think we are prepared to have backup plans for it. Hopefully, we have more depth in our organization since the prospects have played one more year. The Leonard Davises and the Justin Maxwells are knocking on the door. We have the depth up the middle. I think Bowden and I know that we have to go to Spring Training prepared and not counting on those guys that are on the DL.

MLB.com: After last game at Nationals Park was canceled, you told the fans that it would get better with the team. How do you make this team better?

Acta: I think every one would take the wins and losses as a step back, but I just don't see it that way. I don't want to lose. I want to win every single day. Coming out of Spring Training, I thought we would have more than 73 games easy. But we are going to get better because our farm system is coming up. Guys are developing. We have a few arms over there.

With the support our fans have shown over the last two years, it's our responsibility as an organization to put a better product on the field. I'm convinced that the Lerner family, Stan Kasten, Bowden and myself are going to do everything in our power to bring more happiness to our fans next year.

MLB.com: Would you have done anything differently this season?

Acta: Not at all. I think the biggest question that is still out there is the Milledge situation. I'm going to clear that up for everybody right now: We allowed this kid to play center field this whole season. That's what we promised. That's because he is the only guy out of all the outfielders that is set to be here for years to come.

We know maybe one or two guys can play a better center field right now for this team, but the future of those guys in this organization is uncertain because some of them have to prove that they are going to be fine on and off the field. We didn't feel like moving Milledge around and he understands that. It was explained to everybody here. When the moment arrives and we do find a better option, it will be dealt with.

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