Nats won't break bank in Orlando

Nationals seek bargains at Winter Meetings

WASHINGTON -- It's not a secret that the Nationals need to improve their pitching and defense. They also need to add another power hitter after losing left fielder Alfonso Soriano to free agency.

General manager Jim Bowden and the Nats' front-office personnel will do their best to accomplish their goals, starting on Monday at the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla.

One thing is certain, the Nationals will not spend big money on a free agent to improve the ballclub. Team president Stan Kasten has already made it clear that most of that money will be spent on the farm system, which has been dry for several years. The team is currently trying to add more scouts to the organization.

If Washington signs free agents, it will come at a cheap price. For example, right-hander Tomo Ohka, who was traded to the Brewers, is interested in returning to the Nationals. He could be a bargain, because he is coming off an injury-plagued season in 2006.

However, Ohka missed time because of injuries to his right shoulder and hamstring. He did not pitch from May 2 to July 17 because of a right rotator cuff injury that did not require surgery. He also missed the final two weeks of the season after he strained his right hamstring running the bases against the Nationals at RFK Stadium.

"I don't want to rule anything out," Kasten said. "When you sign [big-name free agents], you take yourself farther away from your goal."

Some of the problems on the pitching side could be settled in-house. Bowden has already said that the team may be willing to bring up a prospect such as left-hander Matt Chico to the Majors in 2007 and allow him to compete for a rotation spot.

The Nationals will have to make trades to meet their needs. But the question is, who could they dangle to get better? They are thinking about trading second baseman Jose Vidro and outfielder Ryan Church, according to baseball sources.

Vidro, who is part of a crowded middle infield -- which includes Cristian Guzman and Felipe Lopez -- appears to be the odd man out. Last season, Vidro didn't have knee problems for the first time since the first half of the 2003, but he had a subpar season by his standards. He had a tough time driving in runs and his range deteriorated at second base. Vidro has two years remaining on his contract, and Washington may have to eat some of it to get what it wants.

There is no question that Church has talent. He ended the season strong by going 40-for-131 (.305) with six home runs and 24 RBIs in his last 50 games, but he recently went into the team's doghouse after he refused to play in the Mexican Winter League to work on hitting breaking balls on the outside part of the plate. Church didn't go under the advice of his agent Jeff Borris.

This is a complete about-face on how the Nationals felt about Church two years ago. It was Bowden who once compared Church to Cardinals Gold Glove center fielder Jim Edmonds.

Neither Church nor Bowden would comment about their disagreement.

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