Nats aren't expecting hot stove fireworks

Small free agent pool has new brain trust focused on more modest goals

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

It was a year ago this week that the Washington Nationals made the boldest move in the franchise's D.C.-based history: submitting an eight-year, $160 million contract offer during baseball's winter meetings to free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira. While the stunning offer (which the team later improved) was ultimately unsuccessful in luring Teixeira to Washington, it marked the start of a tumultuous stretch that has succeeded in recasting the franchise's image, and perhaps its fortunes as well.

Over the past 12 months, the Nationals have signed free agent slugger Adam Dunn, severed ties with former general manager Jim Bowden, signed third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to a five-year, $45 million contract extension, fired manager Manny Acta midway through the 2009 season, paid the richest draft bonus in history to phenom Stephen Strasburg and rebuilt their entire front office almost from scratch.

Beginning Monday in Indianapolis, new General Manager Mike Rizzo, presiding over his first winter meetings at the helm, will assemble the team's new brain trust, including new Manager Jim Riggleman, in a hotel suite and search for ways to improve a roster that has suffered back-to-back 100-loss seasons.

"You get that many baseball people together in one place," said Riggleman, who hasn't attended a winter meetings as a manager since 1999, "and a lot of interesting talk can go on, and sometimes it produces some ideas you haven't even thought about."

The Nationals' goals this winter are more modest; there won't be any nine-figure offers made -- both because there are few, if any, available free agents worth that kind of money this winter, and because the Nationals viewed Teixeira as a one-time-only exception to their strategy of building through the draft, their own farm system and well-timed bargain-hunting.

Their targets this winter? At least one veteran starting pitcher, at least one reliable veteran reliever, a catcher and perhaps a middle infielder.

The Nationals figure to fill at least one or two of those holes via trades, as opposed to free-agent signings, preferring to pay discount prices on other teams' surplus talent than to dive into a talent-poor free-agent pool where prices could rise due to lack of supply.

Among the possible targets are pitchers whose contracts their teams are looking to shed, such as Atlanta's Javier Vázquez (one year remaining at $11.5 million), or arbitration-eligible pitchers whose teams need payroll savings, such as Florida's Ricky Nolasco or Detroit's Edwin Jackson.

"That would be our top priority -- to help ourselves make a big step in terms of starting pitching," Riggleman said. "We had a very young staff [in 2009], and they made progress. But to make a move in the standings, we're going to have to pitch better than being statistically last in the league."

Riggleman ranked catcher as the Nationals' next-highest priority, with the team looking for a hybrid starter/backup to carry the primary load until injured incumbent Jesús Flores (shoulder surgery) is at full speed, then shifting into a backup role once Flores returns -- similar, in a way, to how the Baltimore Orioles used veteran Gregg Zaun in 2009 as they awaited the arrival of top prospect Matt Wieters.

"Flores is a guy we're probably going to be building around, but I don't know if Flores is going to be ready to go full-bore in February or March, so we're going to go slow with him," Riggleman said. "So I would say we're actively looking for someone who could catch a lot for us, not just be a [backup] catcher on the roster."

The Nationals consider middle infield a lesser priority, if only because they have a duo in place in rookie shortstop Ian Desmond, who was impressive during a brief call up in September but could benefit from another half-season in the minors, and veteran Cristian Guzmán, a career shortstop whom the team has instructed to prepare for spring training as a second baseman.

"The more we saw of Desmond, and then having Guzmán back on the field, it's not really an area where we are panicking," Riggleman said. "If we go with what we have there, we'd be fine with that."

If the Nationals shun free agency this winter, other than a low-cost signing or two, they undoubtedly will not be alone, as across baseball, even mid- and high-revenue teams appear inclined to largely ignore a feeble free agent class headed by left fielders Matt Holliday and Jason Bay and right-hander John Lackey, and wait until next winter, when the list of free-agent-eligibles includes (for now, anyway) Joe Mauer, Josh Beckett, Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Roy Halladay.

It is Halladay's pending free agency, in fact, that has led to the Hot Stove League's most compelling story line -- the Blue Jays' apparent determination to deal their ace before Halladay's own self-imposed start-of-spring-training deadline (one of many parallels between the Halladay situation and that of lefty ace Johan Santana two winters ago).

Halladay's availability has caused salivation among fans and executives alike from Boston to the Bronx, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and down to Anaheim -- one of whose teams is likely to land him in a blockbuster deal -- and redeemed this entire, forgettable off-season.

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