With their season coming to close and a .500 record still possible, the Nationals consider themselves on the cusp of contention for 2012. After a bevy of young players solidified positions, General Manager Mike Rizzo believes the Nationals can identify the specific pieces that will put them in position to challenge for the 2012 playoffs.
“I think we’re an outfield bat away and a starting pitcher away from really being a contender in the division,” Rizzo said. “We’ve talked a lot about the need for a high on-base percentage top of the order bat, either to fill in one of our outfield positions, either center field or a corner outfielder if you move [Jayson] Werth to center field. We’ve made that perfectly clear that that’s one of our needs.”
The Nationals tried at this year’s trade deadline to add a center fielder with a high on-base percentage who could fill the position for years to come. They unable to add the kind of player they wanted, and with a weak crop of free agent outfielders that fit the profile Rizzo wants, they may have to try again to trade this winter.
The Nationals could consider one of their starting pitchers. With the return to health of Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, and Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock proving they can at least compete for a rotation next spring, the Nationals could trade pitching from a position of power. In Matt Purke, Robbie Ray, A.J. Cole and others, the Nationals also have future rotation candidates deep within their farm system.
“Our pitching depth is the best I’ve seen since I’ve been around here, since the Lerners acquired the team,” Rizzo said. “We certainly would discuss trades to fill some of our needs, if the trade makes sense.”
While John Lannan has become a stalwart for the Nationals’ rotation, he could be the most logical pitcher for the Nationals to consider trading for outfield help. Lannan would draw interest – he turns 27 in two days and is one of 27 pitchers to post an ERA of 4.00 or better in at least 700 innings since 2008. He is due a large raise in arbitration this offseason, too. The Nationals would not be thrilled to trade him, but they will need to deal some player of value to acquire the outfielder they’re looking for.
The Nationals have not stopped looking for an elite to starter to team with Zimmermann and Strasburg. Their No. 1 priority offseason, which they failed to fulfill, was acquiring an ace. With Strasburg on an innings limit for 2012, the Nationals also need to fortify the top of their rotation for the latter portion of next season.
“We’re always looking to get better starting pitching-wise,” Rizzo said. “We’re looking for a top of the rotation guy like we always have been to supplement the younger pitchers below him. That puts everybody down a slot, makes everybody much more comfortable and as the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves can attest, you can never have enough good starting pitching. This is a grind of a season and when you play a month longer than everybody else into playoff baseball, it takes a lot of starting pitchers to get through the season.”
Still, the Nationals do not seem themselves as desperate for any position. Second baseman Danny Espinosa, catcher Wilson Ramos, shortstop Ian Desmond and left fielder Michael Morse all spent this season answering questions for the Nationals about who would man those positions. Even in the outfield, the Nationals have Bryce Harper at Class AA. Neither Rizzo nor Manager Davey Johnson ruled out Harper making the team out of spring training, thought it still seems unlikely.
“I’d like to add at least one bat,” Johnson said. “We might have it within the system with some of the guys already here. It’s not like a must move. I don’t think we’re going to have to be making dramatic moves over the winter. The big move that we made this year is establishing the young guys. The lineup is much more efficient now that these guys have established themselves.”