MILWAUKEE – There has not been much action at these General Manager meetings, unless you count the Vikings fan drinking beers at the Pfister Hotel’s lobby bar. A few general managers have arrived, but Nationals GM Mike Rizzo isn’t getting here until about 7 p.m. central. Today is shaping up as more of an arrival day, with the meetings starting in earnest tomorrow.
When Rizzo walks into the Pfister, he’ll come with the most well-defined offseason to-do list since the Washington Nationals came into existence. The team’s winter objectives had perpetually been easier to list by what they didn’t need. Now, after a young core led them to a third-place finish, it’s pretty clear. The Nationals want a center fielder, preferably one who can hit leadoff, and they would like to bolster an already-deep rotation with a veteran starting pitcher.
The Nationals’ possible starting pitcher targets seem to be well-established. Veterans Roy Oswalt and Mark Buerhle best fit their profile, but C.J. Wilson, as one Nats person put it, “had too good of a year” not to at least consider. (Wilson went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA as the Rangers’ No. 1 starter.) The Nationals under Rizzo have set a precedent to at least kick the tires on just about every major free agent available in a position they feel they need.
The center field market is a bit more interesting. Rizzo has indicated he would prefer to trade for a center fielder, and the Nationals will have the depth at starting pitcher and catcher to swing a deal. A trade seemed necessary at the start of the offseason, when the free agent market had few viable candidates, but several developments have altered that.
First, the Indians declined their 2012 option, for $9 million, on Grady Sizemore. His injuries provide a sizable risk, but no one else on the market matches his upside.
Then came the news that 26-year-old Cuban center fielder Yonnis Cespedes would become a free agent this winter. The Nationals have come to know Cespedes well, having scouted him for years. They also attended a recent showcase workout of his, and they might be scouting him again this week in the Dominican Republic.
The competition to sign Cespedes will likely be stiff, and the price will be high. Cespedes’s representatives are not going to view him like a typical Cuban free agent, but instead as simply the best, youngest free agent center fielder available. It expectedly will take more than $30 million over four years to sign him.
Thursday, the representatives for 29-year-old Japanese center fielder Nori Aoki announced his Japanese team, the Yakult Swallows, will make him available via the posting system. The Nationals have scouted Aoki in the past, and one team official said the Nationals have had internal discussions about him.
Aoki has above-average speed and a traditional Japanese approach to hitting conducive to batting leadoff – he’s got 84 career homers and a career. 402 on-base percentage in eight seasons at Japan’s highest professional league. Three times, most recently in 2010, Aoki led the league in hitting.
He had a down year in 2011, hitting .292/.358/.360 with four homers, but offense suffered across the league after the introduction of a new, smaller ball. His hometown, Hyuga, was also badly affected by the massive April earthquake and tsunami. Aoki’s representatives have compared him to Phillies center fielder, but “that’s probably wishful thinking,” said one scout who’s watched him.
In any event, he’ll be one more option for the Nationals to consider in a center field market that’s becoming deeper than originally expected.