Nats head south with unfulfilled desires

Nats head south with unfulfilled desires

WASHINGTON -- Nationals pitchers and catchers are expected to report to Spring Training in Viera, Fla., on Saturday morning, kicking off the club's fifth season.

Two days later, they will have their first workout at the Nationals' complex, which is about 50 yards away from Space Coast Stadium, their Spring Training home.

Unlike last year, there are plenty of question marks regarding the Nationals. For one, they still haven't upgraded their offense. After losing to the Yankees in the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes, Washington has tried to sign free-agent first baseman Adam Dunn and second baseman Orlando Hudson with little success. Both players exceed the Nationals' price range.

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But don't underestimate general manager Jim Bowden. With so many quality free agents still on the market, Bowden could sign a left-handed hitter at a reasonable price. In 2006, the Nationals were able to sign infielder Ronnie Belliard during Spring Training.

"Certainly, there is a big bat that we think could help us," Bowden said during the Nationals Caravan. "There are certainly a couple of young starting pitchers out there that could help us. There are bullpen guys that could really help us. Whether or not we are able to sign them and make it work remains to be seen, but we are working on it."

Manager Manny Acta, who is in his third season as the Nats' skipper, has some tough decisions to make on the field. For example, the team is loaded with outfielders and nobody knows who the three starters will be.

We know this: Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge and Josh Willingham will compete for the three outfield spots. Justin Maxwell, Roger Bernadina and Leonard Davis most likely will start the season at Triple-A Syracuse, while Wily Mo Pena and Willie Harris will be the backups in Washington.

One could see an outfield of Willingham in left, Milledge in center and Dukes in right. On the other hand, the Nationals could have Milledge in left, Dukes in center and Kearns in right.

One thing is certain: Milledge will be in the lineup because of his bat. After coming off the disabled list on July 23, Milledge hit .300 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs in his last 57 games. The big question is, which position does he play? He was the everyday center fielder last year, but some in the front office believe he would be better as a corner outfielder.

The bullpen could be a problem for Acta. With the average age of the staff just above 26, Washington will have to rely on a bullpen that is young and inexperienced.

The Nationals will rely heavily on Joel Hanrahan, Mike Hinckley, Garrett Mock and Steven Shell, all of whom have spent most of their professional careers as starters. Hanrahan became a reliever last year, and he was named the closer last July when Washington traded right-hander Jon Rauch to Arizona for infielder Emilio Bonifacio. The results for Hanrahan were mixed in the closer's role. He had a 3.96 ERA with nine saves.

"We are happy with the guys who stepped up last year, like the Hinckleys of the world," Acta said. "We have some young arms coming up through the system. Not all of them are going to fit in our starting rotation. Some of them may have to go to the bullpen, too.

Acta continues to have a positive attitude, despite all the questions marks surrounding the team. The manager believes the team will be better as long as it stays healthy, which wasn't the case last season.

"If our guys are healthy, my money is on our guys," Acta said recently. "We can go out there and make things tough for the other clubs. Who knows? This club is better than [the 2007 team] that won 73 games.

"My goal is to always play over .500 baseball. If you go into the season with a goal shorter than that, you sell yourself way too short."

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