Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner recently called general manager Jim Bowden one of the hardest-working people he has ever met. There's no question that Bowden and his staff have tried hard to make the Nationals better.
Under Bowden's watch, the Nationals had arguably the best Draft in baseball in 2007, selecting players such as outfielder Michael Burgess and left-hander Ross Detwiler. They were able to sign their first 20 picks, most of them pitchers.
On the Major League side, Bowden hired manager Manny Acta and was rewarded with a record that will end up better than last year's mark of 71-91. Entering Friday's action against the Phillies, the Nationals are 72-87 and will most likely finish in fourth place in the National League East, breaking a string of three straight last-place finishes.
MLB.com caught up with Bowden on Wednesday at Shea Stadium to talk about the team and its future.
MLB.com: What made the 2007 season so pleasantly surprising to you?
Jim Bowden: We were very fortunate in the Draft. Josh Smoker was there after we had taken Ross Detwiler, then we were able to draft Jack McGeary as well. All of a sudden, we have three potential top-of-the-rotation pitchers in the same Draft -- all left-handed, which is very rare. And we were still able to get a bat in the caliber of Michael Burgess and Jacob Smolinski. To have that type of Draft is very positive.
On the Major League level, to watch Shawn Hill, John Lannan and Jason Bergmann develop at this level, to watch Ryan Zimmerman continue to improve and play the Gold Glove third base -- those are positive things. Jesus Flores, Lannan and Justin Maxwell went from A ball to the big leagues, which is rare to do. All three of them showed a lot of potential in the Major League level. Maxwell hit another home run the other night and I was reminded that Mike Schmidt hit none in his first September in the big leagues.
MLB.com: Where do you see Flores, Maxwell and Lannan next year?
Bowden: As an organization, we'll continue to find ways to put the best team we can on the field. You don't know when opportunities come about with free agency, trades or the farm system. It's always about competition and putting the best product to win games. Certainly, the players you mentioned have a chance to compete for our team next year. We'll let them compete right at Spring Training.
MLB.com: Before the season started, most experts thought the Nationals would be historically bad. What was your reaction when you heard that prediction?
Bowden: I certainly thought this was a team that had a chance to go 70-90. That's what I felt. That's what I said publicly and privately at the time. This team has exceeded it. But I didn't think we would get [over 70] wins the way we did. What that means is, I did not think we would win with a rotation of all first- and second-year pitchers. I did not think we would win without Nick Johnson, without Cristian Guzman, without John Patterson, without Shawn Hill for a significant amount of time. If any of those big pieces had been healthy all year, I think this team would have played .500 baseball.
MLB.com: What are your thoughts on Manny Acta in his first season as manager?
Bowden: I think he should be the National League Manager of the Year. I think Manny has done a phenomenal job. I think he has done a great job with the players. I think he has done a great job with his coaching staff, the media, front office and fans. I think he cares about his players. I think he is a motivator. He is a leader. He takes charge. He wants the game played the right way. If it's not, he'll pull you out of the game, which he proved early in the year. I respect Manny a lot. I've been with a lot of managers. I think his potential is as good as any manager that I've ever worked with.
MLB.com: Acta has one year left on his contract and two one-year options. Will the team pick up those options?
Bowden: I'm not going to comment on that except to say this: Manny Acta is our manager. That's all I need to say.
Bowden: Yes. To me, it's not even a discussion. I feel very blessed to be able to work alongside a young manager as talented as Manny.
MLB.com: It's no secret that the offense was inconsistent all year. What's your take on it?
Bowden: The results are what they are. Certainly we didn't score enough runs. We would have won a lot more games if we scored more runs. We need to improve on our pitching. We need to improve on our fielding. We need to improve on our baserunning.
This is a team, at the end of the day, that is a 70-win team. That's what it is. So we are 20 to 25 games away from where we are going and that's going to take improvements. We are going about it the right way, but have a long way to go. We certainly miss Alfonso Soriano's bat. We miss Nick Johnson's bat. We miss Jose Guillen's bat. No question about it.
This team competed every night. They were in almost every game. [There were] very few games we watched where this team got blown out.
MLB.com: What is your biggest need going into the offseason?
Bowden: If you want to go to the World Series, then you need a No. 1 and No. 2 starter. That's what you need. That's why we drafted what we drafted. No. 2, you need middle-of-the-order, impact bats -- on-base percentage guys in the middle of your lineup.
Nowadays, you want a high on-base percentage and high slugging percentage -- guys that produce runs.
MLB.com: Stan Kasten had indicated to the media that the team most likely will not spend money on top free agents. Do you think you could make trades to get what you want?
Bowden: First of all, Stan was very clear, and if you go back and read everybody's quotes, we are going to explore all possibilities. I think the Draft and trades are always better because you can get younger players there. It's easy to fill long-term solutions through the Draft or trades. Free agency is usually pieces that you get when you are ready to win.
Stan is open to free agents, and we will explore every way we possibly can to win as fast as possible and sustain it.
MLB.com: I'm going to mention some names to you. Tell me what comes to mind. Let's start with Austin Kearns.
Bowden: [He is a] complete baseball player who knows how to play the game the right way.
MLB.com: It doesn't bother you about the season he had with the bat?
Bowden: I think he has played a Gold Glove right field. The offensive numbers are down. I think the ballpark has a lot to do with it. A lack of protection in the lineup has a lot to do with it. He went through a period where they really didn't pitch to him. He still has decent numbers. He is a baseball player. He runs the bases the right way, he breaks up double plays, and he throws to the right base. He is a winning player.
Bowden: He's a Gold Glove third baseman -- one of the best young third basemen in baseball. He's a leader, a winner. I want him up with the game on the line.
MLB.com: Felipe Lopez.
Bowden: He is inconsistent with great potential. He is willing to play whatever position the team puts him in -- whether it was second base or shortstop. He was inconsistent, but trying to work on it. He's too hard on himself sometimes, which takes away from his abilities. He needs to relax and have fun; everything else will take care of itself. I think he will have better numbers next year.
MLB.com: We hear payroll is going to be up. How much better will this team next year?
Bowden: I can't answer that until we see how the offseason plays out. I can tell you the young players will get better. I can tell you we have young players coming. We'll let them compete and we'll see what we are able to do with trades or free agency. I'll have a better answer for Spring Training.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.