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Nationals make a splash at Meetings

Nationals make a splash at Meetings

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nationals made two things clear at the 2007 Winter Meetings: They want to get younger and better. As the Meetings came to a close on Thursday, they felt they accomplished both.

Less than a week after acquiring outfielder Lastings Milledge from the Mets for catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church, general manager Jim Bowden added pitching, power and leadership to a Nationals team that lost 89 games last year.

Bowden acquired outfielder Elijah Dukes from the Rays on Monday. Dukes brings power and athleticism, both of which were lacking in 2007. The pitching staff continued to get younger, as the team picked up right-hander Tyler Clippard from the Yankees on Wednesday. The right-hander is expected to compete for a rotation spot during Spring Training. Last year, Dmitri Young was the only true leader in the clubhouse, so Bowden decided to give Young some help Thursday by signing Aaron Boone, who replaces Tony Batista as the first option off the bench.

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"It's exciting. I think we have gotten better. There is no doubt in my mind. Our roster is changing, but for the good," manager Manny Acta said. "It has been an exciting week. It's a totally different team from five days ago."

But there is still plenty of work to be done. The Nationals are still looking for a starting catcher, more pitching and a leadoff hitter.

The catching situation is the team's top priority, since it dealt Schneider to the Mets. Numerous reports had Paul Lo Duca on its radar, but the team's top target all along has been Johnny Estrada, a switch-hitter. He could be available by next week as the Mets are expected to non-tender him.

Sources close to Estrada have indicated that he wants to play for the Nationals. He worked with team president Stan Kasten and bench coach Pat Corrales when all three were with the Braves. In fact, Estrada had his best season for Atlanta, when he hit .314 with nine home runs and 76 RBIs in 2004.

Bowden has not made a secret that he would like to acquire a catcher for the long term. Washington would like Arizona catcher Miguel Montero, who platooned with Chris Snyder last year. But there are some people in the industry who believe the Nationals don't have enough quality players to acquire his services.

"It's not going to be resolved this hour. I can't tell you about next hour, tomorrow or the next day," Bowden said. "We have Plan A and Plan B. We are never going to stray from Plan A. Any move we make that will help us long term, we are going there. That being said, Plan B is, 'How do we help Manny win as many games as we can as we are developing our club?' We are working on moves right now that will help him win as well."

As far as the leadoff situation goes, the Nationals are not searching for a Major League player and they have nothing in the farm system that could help them now, so they have to most likely make do with shortstop Cristian Guzman as the leadoff hitter.

Even though Bowden said the team would not pursue a veteran on the pitching end, look for him to look at right-hander Jason Jennings, who would likely accept a one-year deal.

Deals done: Acquired Dukes from the Rays for Minor League pitcher Glen Gibson; traded right-handed reliever Jonathan Albaladejo for Clippard; signed Boone to a one-year deal; signed outfielder Wily Mo Pena to a one-year deal, with an option; signed Ryan Langerhans to a one-year contract.

Winter Meetings

Rule 5 Draft activity: Selected Indians third baseman/first baseman Matt Whitney with the seventh overall pick and Twins outfielder Garrett Guzman with the 16th overall pick. Lost shortstop Marcos Cabral to the Blue Jays, left-hander Juan Cedeno to the Tigers and right-hander Brett Campbell to the Brewers.

Goals accomplished: The Nationals finished in last place in runs scored in 2007, but with the addition of Dukes and Milledge, the offense will be considerably better.

Unfinished business: The Nationals need to acquire a starting catcher, and it became very clear at the Meetings that they want Jesus Flores to learn his craft in the Minor Leagues. Teams can never have enough pitching, so look for Bowden, despite what he says, to find some veteran help at a cheap price. It wouldn't hurt to find a leadoff hitter. Guzman and Felipe Lopez don't get on base often enough to qualify for the job.

GM's bottom line: "We're pleased with our long-term goal. We stayed focused on that. With Milledge, Dukes, Clippard and the Rule 5 picks that we made, we are continuing our path. We have a lot of irons in the fire and oars in the water. All of these things may come into place next week. We have a lot of things alive." -- Bowden, regarding possible future deals

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

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