Washington Nationals Powers Actavate

Jim Bowden might have let the world in on the Nationals 2007 motto Tuesday afternoon, albeit an awful one. As he was introducing Manny Acta as the new Nationals skipper, Bowden added the phrase “it’s time to activate” although his intended spelling was likely acta-vate.

Yes, even a press conference such as this wasn’t immune from a cheesy slogan.

Acta handled the press conference questions quite well answering questions ranging from the team’s direction to areas of improvement to accomplishing the dream of being a major league manager. I watched the press conference on mlb.com and couldn’t believe the amount of lame questions being thrown his way.

Still, Acta handled his first managerial press conference well showing a humble side and a funny side.  Nothing earth shattering but nice to see that Acta is quite personable.

Acta joked about having team president Stan Kasten’s job in 10 to 20 years which drew laughter from the attendees. He answered a question in Spanish for a local newspaper. He apologized to a reporter for not calling him back but said the reporter called too late for him to comment.  He added how fortunate he was to be able to land a job especially in the nation’s capital.

Acta interviewed with the Nationals on October 24 and likely won the job that day with his enthusiasm and ideas for improving the team. He met with several key people that day including Bowden and the Lerners. 

Acta should command respect right away as some of his current players were there in Montreal when he was the third base and infield coach.  Brian Schneider and Nick Johnson are two who quickly come to mind. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire worked with Acta from their days in Montreal.  Acta’s reputation is as a player’s coach who gets along well with everyone and is much respected throughout baseball circles. Most everyone seems to agree this was a good hire.

Acta wasn’t been afraid to show he can make a tough decision when he benched Alfonso Soriano in the World Baseball Classic. Interesting enough, Soriano was one of the first to congratulate Acta on the job. Acta was asked if that meant anything toward keeping Soriano, even Acta admitted it would take more than that to keep him. The Washington media is still chasing the pipe dream that Soriano will come back to the Nationals. How sad.

Acta’s coaching resume is lengthy. He started his coaching career in the Houston organization where he was drafted as a player in 1986. In addition to his Astros experience, Acta coached Dominican and Venezuelan winter ball as well as the challenging task of managing the talent-heavy Dominican Republic squad in the World Baseball Classic. 

Acta is aware of the starting pitching situation. John Patterson and Michael O’Connor are coming off injury-related seasons in 2006. Not the most optimistic starting rotation and this coming from a squad that won’t be huge players in the wide-open free-agent market.

The Nationals bullpen should regain close to 2005 form as Luis Ayala will return to the fold as a setup man for closer Chad Cordero.

I expect the 2007 Nationals to be more of a small ball team using speed and sound fundamentals to score runs with Zimmerman and Kearns as the two big home run threats.  I wished the Nationals would’ve retained Mitchell Page as the hitting coach, he made some good strides last year as the team batting average was .261, the highest since 2002.  Defensively, Acta’s presence should result in some improvement in the field.

Acta’s situation is a perfect one for a rookie manager. There’s zero pressure on him to win. His main objective is to grow with a young team and start to take steps toward contending on a more consistent basis.  Acta will implement a more fundamental style approach that some say was lacking under Frank Robinson.

Acta will also bring a strong presence in the Washington community. One thing that impressed me was his inclusion of the fans during his press conference. He spoke of the dedication of the fans and his willingness to be a presence in the community which I thought was a nice move on his part.

Conclusion: The Nationals needed to hire a young manager eager to build a ball club, someone who was willing to work with less experienced talent. They found that in Acta, who turns 38 in January and is currently the youngest manager in major league baseball. The road to respectability and long-term success won’t be an easy one. For at least the next two seasons, the Nationals will grow through draft picks and making low-risk signings.

Acta must adjust to being second-guessed and criticized for on-field moves on a regular basis. Press conferences introducing new managers are great for lobbing softball questions and getting easy generic answers about the future.  Still, the weight of a 162-game season as a big league manager is something Acta had not fully experienced. He’s not had to answer the same questions day after day or speak to the media during a rough stretch.

Acta has to get the team’s respect from the get-go. While there are some players who are familiar with him, most of them have not played under Acta. It’s those players Acta has to reign in to get with the program. He’ll have to put his foot down at some point during the season and it’s how he handles those situations that will tell if he can successfully become a big-league manager.

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