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Although Washington will bring an improved team to its new park, it is still trying to form a solid rotation

The Baltimore Sun

VIERA, Fla. -- Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta describes his attitude in life and in baseball as "optimistic, but realistic."

He called on that philosophy repeatedly last spring, his first as a big league manger. It bugged him that the national media viewed his Nationals as a certain 100-loss club, one that likely was the worst in baseball. "I am not very good at making predictions," he said this month. "But I am worse at believing them."

Even though four-fifths of his rotation was undecided last March, Acta was undaunted. And he was right. The Nationals surprised most pundits by finishing fourth in the National League East with a 73-89 record. Despite an awful 9-17 start, Washington finished strong, going 15-12 in September, including 5-2 in the last eight days against the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Nationals helped torpedo the Mets' postseason chances.

"I wanted my kids to play hard for six months, not 5 1/2 months. And they did," Acta said. "We were very proud of that. That was very, very satisfying."

This year, they have a new park, a revamped outfield and a bolstered bench but a rotation that again is a work in progress. Their improved roster doesn't appear to be in the same class as those of the free-spending Mets and Phillies and the perennially solid Atlanta Braves. But don't tell the Nationals that.

"You plan on winning," reliever Jon Rauch said. "You look forward to winning, and you work toward that in spring training. When the season begins, you ultimately look to be in a playoff race and the World Series."

Rauch and closer Chad Cordero anchor a bullpen that has emerged as one of the NL's best. Last season, Washington relievers posted the most innings (590 2/3 ) in the NL but had the fourth-lowest bullpen ERA in the league (3.81). The support was needed, because the rotation never gained stability. The Nationals used 13 different starters in 2007. Only rookie Matt Chico made more than 21 starts. And Rauch, the reliever, led the team in wins with eight.

Heading into this season, the Nationals felt better about their rotation. But potential ace Shawn Hill has a forearm injury that will cost him part of April, and John Patterson, who was the team's 2007 Opening Day starter, was released this month. That leaves Odalis Perez, invited to spring training as a nonroster player, as the club's most experienced 2008 starter, leading a group that includes 2007 holdovers Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann and - eventually - Hill.

By the end of the season, the rotation could be vastly different with the emergence of young pitchers such as Collin Balester, Ross Detwiler, Chico and several others who have helped the Nationals' minor leaguers move from last to ninth in Baseball America's 2008 rankings.

"We do have some younger arms coming from our system," Acta said. "And we can give our young arms the chance to get to the big league level."

Offensively, no team scored fewer runs than the Nationals did in 2007. That shouldn't be the case this season. The outfield, a revolving door since the club came to Washington in 2005, now has four high-ceiling players 27 or younger: right fielder Austin Kearns, center fielder Lastings Milledge and left fielders Elijah Dukes and Wily Mo Pena (who will start the season on the disabled list with an oblique strain).

The infield is anchored by a developing superstar, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Nick Johnson, who appears healthy after breaking his leg in 2006, and newly acquired catcher Paul Lo Duca.

And the team finally gets a place to call its own, leaving behind dilapidated RFK for the new 41,888-seat Nationals Park in Southeast Washington.

"We are going to have our own field, a brand-new stadium, probably one of the best in the game," said Cordero, who predicts it will "play fair" and be less of a pitchers' park than RFK. "It's something everyone is looking forward to."

What's left is for the Nationals to get the national respect they feel they'll one day deserve.

"We are not being taken into consideration by anybody, and I think for the most part, on paper, they are right because of the teams that are in front of us," Acta said. "But we try to make progress. And I think it has been shown in the last few years that if you go out there and play hard and make progress, good things can happen to you."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Roster

Pitchers B/T Ht Wt DOB

56 Luis Ayala R/R 6-2 175 01/12/78

57 Jason Bergmann R/R 6-4 205 09/25/81

47 Matt Chico L/L 6-0 205 06/10/83

43 Jesus Colome R/R 6-2 200 12/23/77

32 Chad Cordero R/R 6-0 195 03/18/82

38 Joel Hanrahan R/R 6-3 215 10/06/81

41 Shawn Hill-i R/R 6-2 180 04/28/81

36 Ray King L/L 6-1 240 01/15/74

45 Odalis Perez L/L 6-0 225 06/11/77

51 Jon Rauch R/R 6-11 285 09/27/78

17 Tim Redding R/R 6-0 195 02/12/78

52 Saul Rivera S/R 5-11 155 12/07/77

35 Ryan Wagner-i R/R 6-4 210 07/15/82

Catchers B/T Ht Wt DOB

23 Johnny Estrada-i S/R 5-11 210 06/27/76

3 Jesus Flores R/R 6-1 185 10/26/84

16 Paul Lo Duca R/R 5-10 205 04/12/72

Infielders B/T Ht Wt DOB

10 Ronnie Belliard R/R 5-8 195 04/07/75

8 Aaron Boone R/R 6-2 200 03/09/73

15 Cristian Guzman S/R 6-0 195 03/21/78

24 Nick Johnson L/L 6-3 225 09/19/78

2 Felipe Lopez S/R 6-1 185 05/12/80

21 Dmitri Young S/R 6-2 220 10/11/73

11 Ryan Zimmerman R/R 6-2 210 09/28/84

Outfielders B/T Ht Wt DOB

34 Elijah Dukes R/R 6-2 250 06/26/84

1 Willie Harris L/R 5-9 170 06/22/78

25 Austin Kearns R/R 6-4 225 05/20/80

12 Rob Mackowiak L/R 5-11 195 06/20/76

44 Lastings Milledge R/R 6-0 205 04/05/85

26 Wily Mo Pena-i R/R 6-3 245 01/23/82 i-injured

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