Washington's No. 1 change might be the club's image

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. - On Wednesday evening, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo answered an easy question. Sitting in his hotel room on the seventh floor of the Dolphin Hotel, his makeshift office for one more night, Rizzo was asked whether he had met with the agent for starting pitcher Brandon Webb.

"Yes," he said. "I have."

Rizzo paused and then chuckled, leaning back comfortably. "There's not many guys I haven't met with."

Earlier in the day, in the hotel lobby, agent Scott Boras took a question about the Nationals' interest in third baseman Adrian Beltre, one of his clients. Boras withheld specifics, but he offered what doubled as a summation of what became one the primary themes of these winter meetings: "The Nationals," Boras said, "are in the business of talking to a lot of players."

The Nationals entered baseball's winter meetings Sunday with a glaring vacancy at first base and questions about how they would improve their 69-win team and placate their despairing fan base.

They will depart Thursday afternoon, following the Rule 5 draft, having made one of the most significant deals across the league and set the stage for more to come. They signed Jayson Werth, competed for Cliff Lee and earned a new reputation as one of the boldest, most aggressive and least thrifty teams of the offseason.

"We're extremely happy the way the winter meetings have gone," Rizzo said. "We've done a lot of work. We landed an elite player and laid the groundwork on many other fronts. So, yeah, we feel good about ourselves right now."

The Nationals have shifted the focus on them from losing Adam Dunn to the Chicago White Sox to the seven-year, $126 million contract they gave Werth and, even more so, what they might do next.

Their main priorities remain starting pitching and first base, in that order. "We've said all along starting pitching is first and foremost," Rizzo said. "We certainly have to fill the spot we have at first base."

On Wednesday, the Nationals lost some choices to add a first baseman. In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Carlos Pena signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. Pena had been a Nationals target and the player most frequently attached to the Nationals as a replacement for Dunn. Also, the White Sox re-signed Paul Konerko, their own first baseman.

Losing out on Pena hardly deterred Rizzo. "He was just one of many options that we were thinking of," Rizzo said. "I know our name was attached to him quite a bit, but he was just one of many guys we were thinking about."

The most likely addition appears to be Adam LaRoche, who hit .261 with a .320 on-base percentage, a .468 slugging percentage and 25 home runs for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. While LaRoche makes sense and the Nationals have interest, a deal with LaRoche was not imminent as of Wednesday afternoon and not a lock to happen, one team source said.

In their search for a first baseman, the Nationals will not constrict themselves to any one player, or even any one variety of player. Rizzo said the Nationals will consider long-term solutions and stop-gaps, free agent signings and trades.

"We'll explore both options," Rizzo said. "There's planning ahead that can take into account both kinds of players. It expands our pool a little bit more."

The Nationals have not limited their options to upgrade their pitching staff, either. For the first time in three days, the Nationals did not meet with Darek Braunecker, the agent for Lee. Their status as a "real long shot" to sign Lee did not change, Rizzo said. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees made an offer to Lee, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman told reporters.

Even as Rizzo downplays the Nationals' chances at Lee, many people in baseball have become convinced the Nationals could contend for his services. That's because many people in baseball, after the Werth contract came from out of nowhere, have become convinced the Nationals are capable of almost anything.

The merits of the Werth contract will be decided over seven years. Already, in one week, it has changed the Nationals' image.

"It's hard to control the perception, but I think the fan base sees we've got a plan in place," Rizzo said. "We're going to follow the plan. We're a ball club that's on the rise. I see the perception of the fan base in Washington seeing us as a team to be excited about, because we're going in the right direction."

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