Acta excited about Nats' future
Manager believes recent moves has club in right direction
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After being named manager of the Nationals, Manny Acta's goals for the 2007 season were very high. He wanted them to finish the season over .500 and make the playoffs.
The Nationals didn't come close to reaching Acta's goals because they had problems scoring runs, but the team played hard and didn't finish in last place in the National League East for the first time since the 2004 season, when they were known as the Expos.
"I'm very proud the way our kids played," Acta said. "These kids were able to win more games than the year before without Alfonso Soriano, Livan Hernandez, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen and Nick Johnson, who was our best hitter and still is when he's healthy. I think it was a tremendous accomplishment."
Since the season ended, general manager Jim Bowden has improved the team by acquiring outfielders Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes and right-hander Tyler Clippard in trades, and it has Acta excited about the 2008 season. In Milledge and Dukes, the Nationals have added two athletic players with power potential, while Clippard is a young pitcher who will get a chance to be in the rotation.
"I think we have made big-time strides," Acta said. "Our outfield situation has improved and the bench has improved. We have gotten younger with energy. Any time you could do that, which is what we are trying accomplish, I think we are onto something good here."
Although the team got better with those three acquisitions, Acta and Bowden have a lot of decisions to make. They have four quality outfielders in Dukes, Milledge, Wily Mo Pena and Austin Kearns.
Somebody has to get benched or get traded for starting pitching. MLB.com reported on Monday night through a baseball source that Kearns was on the block, but Bowden denied that was the case.
The Nationals have three quality middle infielders in Ronnie Belliard, Cristian Guzman and Felipe Lopez. There is only room for two. Belliard made things crowded by having the best season of his career in 2007.
"When you're with him, all he cares about is winning and he'll do whatever it takes to win," Acta said of Belliard. "And so I had that advantage, and to us it was a blessing to get a guy like Ronnie, and it proved to be a blessing once [Guzman] went down from Day 1.
"He's a guy who knows how to play the game. He accepted his role from Day 1, which was presented to him before we signed him. I mean, here's a guy who just came from the World Series champ St. Louis Cardinals, playing every day, to go play for the Nationals as a backup. He took to his his role, and it worked out for him and us."
Then there the Johnson/Dmitri Young situation at first base. According to Acta, Johnson is making tremendous strides while recovering from leg and hip injuries, and he is expected to be ready for Spring Training.
"[Johnson's] feeling much better after they took the rod out," Acta said, "and he doesn't want to put any date on anything, but he feels like he's more up to speed than how he was before they took the rod out."
Once Johnson is healthy, that could leave Young on the bench. Young is coming off a season in which hit .320 and won the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Asked if Young knew that he would be on the bench once Johnson came back from the injuries, Acta said, "You know, that's too far down the line. I really want him to concentrate on what the goal is, which is take care of his health during the offseason, be in better shape for Spring Training, and be ready to play first base. He's not on the bench yet. Why should I talk to him about that? You don't want the put any negative stuff into this guy's head."
And the team is still trying to figure out if catcher Jesus Flores needs more seasoning in the Minor Leagues or deserves another shot to be in the big leagues.
"It's December. I'll give you all those three months for you to have fun trying to put it together," Acta said.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.