The Nationals will enter a free agent market that may seem overactive compared to recent seasons. The league is flush with cash because of new television revenue and rising attendance figures. Fewer stars are available than usual because of the growing trend toward teams signing marquee players before they reach free agency. It will be a whole new brand of free agency.
But there are plenty of valuable free agents, 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 free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, who has until Friday to accept the one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer the Nationals made him. They need to add a starter, preferably a reliable 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 fielder
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. LaRoche wants to stay in Washington, but he will likely decline the qualifying offer in the hopes of landing a multiyear deal.
If the Nationals cannot re-sign LaRoche, they could move Michael Morse to first base and begin the search for a center fielder, moving Bryce Harper to left field 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. Bourn is the superior defender, but both play top-shelf defense. Upton hit 28 homers in 2012 and provides above-average power for a center fielder, while Bourn has the on-base skills to lead off and let Jayson Werth hit in the middle of the lineup.
Bourn could require a four- or five-year salary somewhere between $80 million and $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. Harper played well in center in his rookie season, and they have a center field prospect in Brian Goodwin who could handle the position not this season, but in the near future.