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Nationals wrap up their winter meetings early

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NASHVILLE — Not long after lunchtime Wednesday afternoon, the men who run the Washington Nationals’ baseball operation removed themselves from the busiest baseball event of the winter. A day and a half remained at the winter meetings, but Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson checked out of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. Their work, for now, was done.

The early departures of Rizzo and Johnson represented the Nationals’ confidence in their offseason. Having traded for center fielder Denard Span before the meetings and put a deal in place with right-hander Dan Haren at them, the Nationals had largely set their roster. They did not even bother to show up for Thursday’s Rule 5 draft, knowing none of the discards available could stick on their roster.

As the Nationals ended their winter meetings, they turned their primary focus toward re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche with an eye on adding a left-hander to their bullpen. Even as Sean Burnett signed with the Los Angeles Angels and the lefty reliever market developed, the Nationals have made it their first priority to bring LaRoche back, to fit his left-handed bat into their lineup and his slick glove at first base.

They think they can re-sign LaRoche, and “I won’t really sleep real comfortable until he does,” Johnson said. “I hope that gets worked out. Everybody knows each other. I think everybody has a lot of comfort zones, not just on the field but in the clubhouse and off the field.

I had him in my golf tournament. I told him: ‘You don’t want to go somewhere and be miserable. You know you’re going to have a good time in D.C. I won’t platoon you.’ I don’t know if there’s a deadline. But that’d be a nice Christmas present. That’d put the icing on the cake.”

The Nationals, according to multiple team officials, do indeed have an informal deadline to reach a resolution with LaRoche by Christmas. Even beyond Johnson’s relentless recruiting pitches, Nationals officials remain optimistic LaRoche will return to Washington. The fit for both sides, they feel, is too good for them not to reach a deal, even if the Nationals aren’t budging off a two-year contract offer and LaRoche wants three years. The Nationals want LaRoche, and LaRoche wants to play in Washington.

“It’s going to happen, I think,” one said.

When and if the Nationals re-sign LaRoche, they would need to trade Michael Morse. With a crowded outfield and LaRoche at first base, Johnson said he could not see Morse fitting in. Johnson would not want to reduce Morse’s role, believing him to be too accomplished of a hitter.

The Nationals have taken calls from teams interested in Morse, but they have not advanced far in any discussions, partly because they want to keep Morse in the event LaRoche signs elsewhere. “I don’t want to jinx anything,” one Nationals official said. “Let’s sign LaRoche first.”

Assuming LaRoche signs, the Nationals would first try to use Morse as a means to acquire a starting pitching prospect. They have traded four pitching prospects — Tommy Milone, A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock and Alex Meyer – over the past two offseasons. The deals netted them Gio Gonzalez and Span, but they also depleted starting depth from the upper levels of their farm system.

The Nationals could get a close-to-the-majors pitcher, but would not likely receive a top-tier prospect for Morse. He is a legitimate middle-of-the-order power hitter who has slugged 49 homers with an .858 on-base percentage in 928 at-bats over the past two seasons. But he only has one year of team control remaining on his contract, and teams interested in him are leery of his ability to stay healthy. Morse missed the first 50 games last year, and he has played in more than 102 games only once, in his breakout 2011 season.

The Seattle Mariners, the team that traded Morse to the Nationals in the middle of 2009, could be a solid trade partner for the Nationals. Seattle is desperate for offense, and it has a bevy of advanced starting pitching prospects. Some team officials said they could package Morse with another player if they want an upper-echelon prospect.

The Nationals are targeting free agent left-hander J.P. Howell, who pitched the past seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, to replace Burnett. Howell, 29, posted a 3.04 ERA in 502 / 3 innings last season. The Nationals believe his mid-80s, sweeping fastball makes him effective against right-handed batters, and they want a lefty who, like Burnett, can retire hitters from both sides of the plate.

The Nationals figure to compete with the Milwaukee Brewers, who are also looking for left-handed relief help. On Tuesday, Howell told MLB.com he would like to play for the Nationals in part because, “I like their style, and they are absolutely loaded.”

The moves the Nationals have made echoed around the sport. The online bookmaker Bovada installed the Nationals, at 8-1, as the lone favorite to win the 2013 World Series. Both Philadelphia Manager Charlie Manuel and Atlanta Manager Fredi Gonzalez, two division rivals, conceded the Nationals’ status as the team to beat in the National League East.

By adding Span’s affordable contract and signing Haren to a one-year, $13 million deal, the Nationals maintained financial flexibility whether or not they sign LaRoche. Using estimates for players owed raises through arbitration, the Nationals have roughly $97 million committed to players under contract for 2013. Add on LaRoche and a lefty reliever to polish off the winter, and the Nationals’ payroll should level off at about $115 million – by far the highest in team history but still only enough to rank ninth in the majors.

The Nationals plan to remain mostly quiet for the remainder of the offseason, the winter meetings behind them earlier than usual and the spring starting to feel closer and closer.

More on the Nationals: Harper will not play in World Baseball Classic Burnett leaves Nationals for Angels Angels Manager Scioscia raves about Haren Nats have rotation set, could add depth

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