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After visiting Mark Buehrle, Nationals’ Mike Rizzo feels confident

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DALLAS — After General Manager Mike Rizzo visited Mark Buehrle on Nov. 21, he felt confident the Washington Nationals could land the left-handed starting pitcher, one of the most coveted free agents on the market. As the winter meetings churn forward, his sentiment has not changed, which signifies both a potential boon to the Nationals’ rotation and the continuing shift in the team’s perception.

As of Tuesday night, Buehrle had winnowed his field to five teams — and the Nationals were one of them. Buehrle narrowed his choices in order to move forward with those select clubs more seriously, and negotiations had picked up with all five. He’ll continue the process of shrinking his field until making a decision.

Rizzo had the sense Buehrle could decide quickly, and he had high hopes he would land the pitcher the Nationals made their top target this offseason. The confidence traced back to that meeting in November, when Rizzo flew to Buehrle’s home in St. Louis and laid out why Buehrle should come play in Washington.

“There was a connection there,” Rizzo said. “I went in there and really gave him a presentation of what we’re all about, what we’re trying to do now, what we’re trying to do in the future, what part does he play in it. It was a well-rounded presentation to show all the facets.”

Rizzo told Buehrle he would serve both as a top-of-the-rotation starter and a mentor to the Nationals’ young pitching staff, headlined by Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. He emphasized how Washington appeals to a young family like Buehrle’s, and he included details such as how the Nationals handle security for players’ wives. Rizzo said he argued why the Nationals are ready to win, an important factor for the pitcher.

“At the beginning, there was a lot of interest,” Rizzo said. “When we left, there was a great interest in the Washington Nationals.”

Rizzo has been making pitches to free agents for three offseasons now as the Nationals’ general manager, and they have become easier. He inherited a 103-loss team that had finished with the worst record in the majors two years running. He now runs a team packed with potential that finished third in the National League East and finished one win shy of .500.

“We’re beyond the point where we apologize for not being very good and we’re rebuilding,” Rizzo said. “I think we’re a solid team. We have a chance to compete, and we get that point across. We do it by what our reputation is amongst the players. They talk a lot. We have a good reputation out there as a good place to be.

“It’s an easier presentation to put together, I know that. It’s, ‘Here’s how we’re going to win, and here’s how you’re going to help us get there.’ We can base that on facts and names and not just concepts and philosophies.”

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman can remember the days when a top free agent choosing the Nationals seemed even more preposterous than at the start of Rizzo’s tenure, back when Major League Baseball owned a team that played in rundown RFK Stadium. Zimmerman — who endorsed Buehrle as “a guy who throws 200 innings every year” — said the Nationals’ young talent finally reaching the majors caused the shift.

“It’s a lot different with the guys we have coming up,” Zimmerman said. “People can see where we’re going now.”

While Buehrle is the Nationals’ clear-cut top choice, Rizzo called C.J. Wilson “an extremely talented, young left-handed pitcher” who “will immediately improve a ball club.” Rizzo said he has spoken with Wilson, but the Nationals are not believed to be seriously pursuing him.

Buehrle precisely fits the profile of the kind of starting pitcher the Nationals want to add, a veteran with a consistent, durable track record. Buehrle, 32, has a 161-119 career record with a 3.83 earned run average and has thrown at least 200 innings in all 11 of his major league seasons. Despite his experience, he’s only one year older than Wilson, regarded as the best free agent starter available.

If the Nationals miss out on Buehrle, they would move to sign free agent right-hander Roy Oswalt, 34. Rizzo said yesterday he would also consider searching for a starting pitcher via trade. The Nationals have ample depth in their rotation, but adding Buehrle and pairing him with Strasburg and Zimmermann would give the Nationals one of the most formidable rotations in the league.

As Buehrle’s representatives continued to make the rounds at the winter meetings, his decision could come sooner than later.

“From my meeting with him, I don’t think he wants this to be a long, drawn-out process,” Rizzo said. “I think he wants to get comfortable with a team, be treated fairly and get on with the offseason and his preparation for spring training.”

Buehrle wants a no-trade clause in his contract. Rizzo is loathe to give them out, but he said he would be open to offering one for the “right fit.” For the Nationals, Buehrle would be that right fit. And, in a change from past winters, the Nationals might actually be the right fit for a top free agent.

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