Offseason Outlook: Washington Nationals

The Nationals aim to add an outfield bat and a starting pitcher this offseason, which might be enough to vault them into contention in 2012.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (estimated salaries)

Free Agents

It's about time the Nationals become a bona fide contender.  The heart of the batting order can be elite with Zimmerman, Morse, and Werth.  The rotation has front-end arms in Strasburg and Zimmermann, even if neither is a horse yet.  The back end of the bullpen is in place too, with Drew Storen, Clippard, and Henry Rodriguez.  This is the foundation of a playoff team, but GM Mike Rizzo must make several more significant acquisitions to make the Nationals a contender in 2012.  Rizzo recently told Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, "I think we're an outfield bat away and a starting pitcher away from really being a contender in the division."

If Strasburg and Zimmermann combine for, say, 350 regular season innings in 2012, it'd be ideal to make up that deficiency with an innings-eating ace.  Obviously, those are in high demand. Free agents C.C. Sabathia and C.J. Wilson fit the bill, while James Shields would be a high-end trade target.  In the next tier, potentially available starters such as Edwin Jackson, Jason Vargas, Mark Buehrle, Jeremy Guthrie, and Brett Myers could gobble up 200 innings at a respectable ERA.  I don't like the idea of trading Lannan; the Nationals need the innings he could provide as a reasonably-priced fourth starter.  Catcher Jesus Flores represents more expendable trade bait, though his value is at a low point.

Assuming they believe in the second-half performance of shortstop Ian Desmond, the Nationals are in good shape in the middle infield and at catcher.  Center field continues to represent the biggest up-the-middle question for the club.  Rizzo could renew talks for Twins center fielder Denard Span, who is potentially signed through 2015.  Otherwise, Rizzo could go for a stopgap solution like B.J. Upton or Coco Crisp and keep Matt Kemp and Jacoby Ellsbury in the back of his mind as future free agent possibilities.  Using Werth in center is another option, at least in the short-term.

Agent Scott Boras will surely try to sell the Nationals on the idea of signing Prince Fielder for first base and using Morse in left field.  Fielder doesn't gel with the team's primary short-term or long-term needs. They have a $9MM commitment with first baseman LaRoche next year and impending extension talks for Zimmerman.  Committing $100MM to C.J. Wilson would be one thing, but Fielder could require twice as much.

One more item on the Nationals' to-do list is to name their manager for 2012.  Davey Johnson is widely expected to keep the job, but the team has until the end of the month to decide.

Are the Nationals looking to go all-in for 2012, or just make marginal improvements and let Bryce Harper and other talented young players close the gap whenever they're ready?  A healthy bump to a $100MM payroll would give the team $40MM+ in 2012 flexibility, enough for two starting pitchers and an outfielder, which could result in the Nationals' first playoff appearance.



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