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Nationals lose Ben Zobrist sweepstakes

The Nationals await a decision from Ben Zobrist, the position-playing prize of the Winter Meetings. (Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports)

NASHVILLE — The Nationals will not leave Nashville with coveted utility player Ben Zobrist, perhaps their top free agent target, after the veteran agreed to a four-year pact with the Cubs worth $56 million, according to multiple reports. Washington’s courtship of Zobrist dates to the trade deadline, when the Nationals expressed interest in the versatile switch-hitter who can play pretty much anywhere.

Even though the Nationals also appeared willing to go four years, Zobrist felt more comfortable elsewhere and because of the clubhouse, according to a person familiar with the situation. Zobrist has a close tie to Chicago, too: he played for Cubs Manager Joe Maddon when both were with the Tampa Bay Rays.

General Manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday afternoon that the Nationals’ offseason plan has not stalled as they waited for Zobrist to sign.

The Mets, Giants and Nationals were making serious pitches to Zobrist, but by Tuesday afternoon, Fox Sports indicated that he was choosing between the Mets and Cubs. The Nationals sensed their chances at landing Zobrist slipping as the day went on.

“We put a nice hard push to acquire a really good player,” Rizzo said earlier Tuesday. “The effort, we put a good effort in place and we think he’s a guy who would help the club.”

According to Rizzo, the Nationals were in touch with Zobrist’s representatives “on several occasions throughout the week” but did not speak to Zobrist directly. The Mets, by contrast, hosted Zobrist and reportedly took him on a tour of Connecticut suburbs.

As the Nationals move on from Zobrist, Rizzo said the Nationals “have several irons in the fire,” but had not inquired on young aces Jose Fernandez and Shelby Miller. Atlanta reportedly dealt Miller to Arizona on Tuesday night.

The team had also not made contact with veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who some view as a possible stopgap option until Trea Turner is ready to play every day, something Rizzo said he wouldn’t rule out happening this season.

“[Turner] has to prove defensive consistency, defensive consistency and just logging some at bats,” Rizzo said. “Don’t forget, he only played one full season of professional baseball out of college, so he’s been on a whirlwind tour of the development system, and obviously he’s got tremendous talent that allows him to do that, and he’s handled it terrifically.”

In the meantime, Rizzo reiterated that the Nationals are comfortable with their depth in the middle infield. Anthony Rendon is expected to move back to third base next season, meaning a position change for Yunel Escobar. Rizzo said the team has decided where they want Escobar to prepare to play next season, but would not share that publicly — another indication that the Nationals may be shopping Escobar.

With Zobrist off the table, the Nationals will likely continue to hunt left-handed hitting in the infield and outfield, perhaps in the form of a sturdy outfielder able to spell Jayson Werth regularly in left field, or a left-handed hitting infielder that could platoon or play every day at second base. Veteran Stephen Drew is available to fill the latter role, though Rizzo’s best options may lie on other rosters.

More from baseball’s winter meetings:

Aroldis Chapman case will test MLB domestic violence policy

Amid uproar, Dusty Baker clarifies Chapman, domestic violence comments

Nationals have serious interest in right-hander Shawn Kelley

The market for relief pitching is skyrocketing