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Several young arms nearing majors

The Nationals bottomed out in 2008, losing 102 games. It was the sorriest summer the franchise has known since 1969, when they were in their first year of existence as the Expos.


Everything seemed to go wrong: The 4.66 ERA was the worst in the NL East and 14th in the NL. Half of the save opportunities were blown, a ratio that placed the Nats dead last in the league.

The hitting didn't help cover the deficits. The .373 slugging percentage was the NL's lowest, as were the 2,048 total bases. Only the Giants hit fewer home runs.

The challenge for ownership will be to hang on to the influx of fans. The Nats enjoyed an 18 percent boost in attendance that accompanied the opening of the new ballpark in 2008.

Primary needs

Stability at first base would help immensely. Nick Johnson is returning in '09, but he's been hurt every year since joining the Nats in 2004. And Dmitri Young, outrighted to Triple-A Syracuse on Nov. 4, continues to battle his own health issues related to diabetes.

A power-hitting, left-handed bat would boost the offense, too. In the meantime, the addition of Josh Willingham, acquired from the Marlins this week, should help. Even with just 15 homers last year, he becomes the Nats' best long-ball threat and a likely candidate to bat cleanup. Left-hander Scott Olsen, acquired in the same deal with Florida for second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and two minor leaguers, will anchor the needy rotation and might even become the Nationals' ace.

Free agents

C Johnny Estrada, INF Aaron Boone, SS Felipe Lopez, OF Wily Mo Pena (mutual option), OF Rob Mackowiak, LHP Odalis Perez

There's definitely room for good-guy Boone if he wants to return in a utility role. But the jury is out on Pena, who underwent season-ending surgery after hitting just .205 with two homers in 195-bats.

If the club exercises its option on Pena, he'll earn $5 million. If Pena exercises it, he'll earn $2 million.

Trade bait

There are no untouchables on a 102-loss roster, not even the most marketable player, Ryan Zimmerman. Crazy? Not entirely. Even though Zimmerman is still three years away from free agency, the club has yet to lock him into a multiyear contract that would keep him off the market.

The ultra-talented Zimmerman might just decide he hasn't got the patience for the Nats' downward spiral and will bolt when he's eligible after 2011. Maybe the Nats will try to move him and restock their system with three or four quality prospects. You never know.

Farm aid

Former first-round pick Chris Marrero broke his leg, costing the first baseman the '08 season. Collin Balester and Garrett Mock, both right-handed pitchers, were called up at the end of the '08 season, impressing the Nats enough to possibly earn a spot on the '09 roster.

The franchise is equally enthused about Jordan Zimmermann, a right-hander who averaged a strikeout an inning in the minors last year while going 10-3 and holding opponents to a .215 average. Zimmermann will start the season at Triple-A but could be in the big leagues before long.

Outlook

Manager Manny Acta is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, and it'll be interesting to see how he'll operate as a lame duck in a tough division. Acta has yet to improve on predecessor Frank Robinson's track record: In two seasons, Acta's Nationals are 132-191 (.409 winning percentage).

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.