Nationals have many options open as free agency begins

Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post

The gears of the baseball offseason will start to churn in the next few hours, as the 5 p.m. deadline for teams to extend qualifying offers to their own free agents hits. By midnight, the exclusive negotiating window for teams with their own free agents will expire, and any team will be welcome to sign any free agent.

The Nationals will enter a market flush with cash because of new television revenue and rising attendance figures, and with fewer stars available than usual because of the recent trend toward teams signing marquee players before they become eligible for free agency. It will be a whole new brand of free agency; in a few years, Jayson Werth’s seven-year, $126 million deal may seem frugal by comparison.

But there are plenty of valuable players out there, and the Nationals will enter the fray with several goals in their effort to go from National League East champion to World Series participant. They would like to re-sign Adam LaRoche and keep him from entering a market bereft of quality options at first base. They need to add a starter, preferably a veteran who wouldn’t require a long-term commitment. They need to beef up their bullpen. They may try to solve their years-long search for a solid center field solution.

The offseason will hinge partly on whether they can re-sign LaRoche. The sides have engaged in contract talks since the end of the regular season. They could try to entice LaRoche to stay with a $13.3 million qualifying offer for 2013, $3.3 million more than the mutual offer he declined Thursday morning. But LaRoche wants to stay in Washington for multiple seasons, and so he may decline that offer, too.

If the Nationals cannot re-sign LaRoche, they likely would make Michael Morse their first baseman and begin the search for a center fielder, moving Bryce Harper to left field in order to save him from the wear and tear of playing center field.

The best free agent center fielders available are Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton, both of whom the Nationals have discussed in trade talks in recent seasons. Both play top-shelf defense, and Upton provides solid power for a center fielder while Bourn has the on-base skills to leadoff and let Jayson Werth hit in the middle of the lineup.

Bourn could require a four- or five-year salary somewhere between $80-100 million, while Upton, who played youth baseball with Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, would likely take at least a three-year contract. Signing either would give them a quality player as well as weaken the Braves and Phillies, two divisional rivals in need of a center fielder.

Still, the Nationals may not be as keen on giving that kind of deal to a center fielder as many expect. Bryce Harper played well in center in his rookie season, and they have center field prospects who could handle the position not this season, but in the near future.

But there is another marquee name to keep in mind, not on the free agent market but on the trading block. The Nationals attempted to trade for Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury this summer both before and after the July 31 non-waiver deadline, putting in a waiver claim for him in August, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. It is not known what the Nationals offered, only that they fell far short of the Red Sox’ understandably high demands by a decent margin, and the discussions never reached advanced stages. But it would not be a surprise if they tried again for Ellsbury this winter, if the Red Sox make him available, which is a significant “if.”

Ellsbury may fit into the Nationals’ long-term plans better than Bourn, who could receive a contract of four or five years approaching $100 million. Ellsbury, 29, has one season remaining before he becomes eligible for free agency, and he figures to receive a raise to somewhere in the neighborhood of $9-10 million through arbitration for 2013. The short-term commitment would allow the Nationals to keep the position open for top prospect Brian Goodwin, a 22-year-old with a mature offensive game currently ripping through the Arizona Fall League, if he developed enough to take over in 2014.

If the Nationals can sign LaRoche, they would have the viable option to essentially keep the same lineup from last season. Or they could also trade Morse, who will make $6.75 million in his final season before free agency, and sign acquire a top-flight center fielder.

The Nationals’ pitching plans will depend on Edwin Jackson’s status. If they give him a qualifying offer and he accepts, their rotation would be set with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler and Jackson.

If they can’t sign Jackson, they would turn to the free agent market. For now, people familiar with the Nationals’ thinking expect them to either trade arbitration-eligible John Lannan or allow him to become a free agent rather than tendering him a contract in arbitration. Manager Davey Johnson raised the possibility of turning standout call-up Christian Garcia from a reliever to a starter, but his inexperience and history of arm injury may make that too risky.  

With a young staff, the Nationals would like to add a durable, veteran starter. If not Jackson, starters who fit their need are Kyle Lohse, 34, and Ryan Dempster, 36. Lohse, a Scott Boras client, is coming off the two best seasons of his career and would demand a contract of three or four years, which may be more than the Nationals are willing to commit with top prospect Alex Meyer a possibility for the 2014 rotation. Dempster would likely take less money and fewer seasons.

In the bullpen, the Nationals’ top two left-handers, Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez, are free agents. The Nationals plan on trying to re-sign Zach Duke and giving him the left-handed long-relief/spot starter role filled by Tom Gorzelanny last season. The move could save them $2 million, and it would also them to trade Gorzelanny for another piece or to keep Gorzelanny, who is eligible for arbitration, and make him into more of a left-handed specialist.

The Nationals talked to Burnett about a new contract throughout the season. They will receive competition from teams like the Cardinals and Dodgers who need left-handed relief help. If the Nationals cannot re-sign him, they could target Jeremy Affeldt to replace him. Affeldt is older than Burnett, but has been similarly productive in recent seasons and, like Burnett, is effective against left-handed and right-handed bats.

The Nationals may also try to enhance the back-end of their bullpen. Ryan Madson, a former Phillies closer coming off Tommy John surgery, is a possibility if they decide they want to prioritize putting another power arm with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.

The Nationals biggest moves this offseason may not include free agency. They will likely try to sign both shortstop Ian Desmond and Zimmermann to long-term contract extensions.

Despite all the chatter to come, including all the chatter above, the Nationals won 98 games and finished first in the NL East with a young, largely homegrown team. They have the option to stand mostly pat if they wish. But the past two offseasons have both brought surprises: Werth’s megadeal prior to 2011 and Jackson’s late signing before 2012. It’s probably wise to expect something unexpected.

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Adam LaRoche, Sean Burnett decline mutual options, become free agents