Big names on Nats' potential wish list

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Big names on Nats' potential wish list

While most of the sporting public spent the weekend watching football and perfecting the art of changing channels the moment yet another incessant campaign ad overtook their TV screens, baseball's free agency period officially opened for business.

You most likely didn't hear a whole lot about it, because as anyone who follows baseball knows, no free agents actually sign the moment free agency begins. This isn't the NFL, and Ted Lerner didn't have his private jet gassed up and ready to hit the skies at 12:01 a.m. Saturday in pursuit of the Nationals' top target.

No, baseball operates at a slower, more calculated pace than other sports on the field, and the same holds true off the field over the winter. Players want to test the market and see just how many teams are willing to pay how much for their services. And general managers want to wait and see just how things play out around them and not overpay in a fruitless effort to pounce on a guy before he has a chance to talk to anyone else.

Truth be told, the Hot Stove League won't really kick into high gear for several more weeks, not until the Winter Meetings (Dec. 3-6 in Nashville) draws closer. But any good GM has already put together his wish list and knows what he's looking for well before the holiday shopping season arrives, and Mike Rizzo is no different. The Nationals GM was already putting together his free agency board before his team was eliminated from the postseason.

Rizzo doesn't reveal his list publicly, but it's not too difficult to speculate what names likely appear on it. With the Nationals' offseason needs -- a No. 5 starter, a lefty reliever, potentially a center fielder -- no secret, let's take a look at some of the free agents Rizzo is most likely targeting this winter...

RHP ZACK GREINKE
Greinke might well be the biggest prize on the market, one whose contract could easily surpass the $100 million threshold. Are the pitching-rich Nationals really going to spend that kind of money on another starter? Though there are reasons to believe they won't, the possibility shouldn't be discounted for one simple reason: Rizzo really likes Greinke. He made every attempt to acquire the right-hander via trade prior to the 2011 season, offering the Royals a package that would have featured several players off a list that included Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa and Drew Storen. Greinke nixed the whole possibility, saying he wanted to pitch for a team that had a chance to win right then, and wound up in Milwaukee. Given the current state of the Nationals, you have to believe the 29-year-old feels differently about this organization now than he did two winters ago. It still may cost far more than the Nationals are willing to spend, but if the price was right, Rizzo wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger on a move that would give his team unquestionably the best rotation in baseball.

CF MICHAEL BOURN
This is a name that has been linked to the Nationals for quite a while, going back at least to July 31, 2011, when Rizzo sought to pry him away from Houston at the trade deadline. The Nats have long been searching for a classic, leadoff-hitting center fielder, and Bourn perfectly fits the mold. But the need to acquire such a player may not be nearly as great now as it was 15 months ago. Bryce Harper certainly appears capable of playing center field every day in 2013 (and perhaps beyond). Brian Goodwin (currently tearing up the Arizona Fall League) could be ready to take over that position in 2014. And if they re-sign Adam LaRoche and choose not to trade Michael Morse, the Nationals won't have any openings in their outfield to begin with. Given the kind of contract agent Scott Boras is going to seek for the 30-year-old Bourn -- five years -- this connection appears less and less plausible.

RHP KYLE LOHSE
A veteran right-hander with a decent track record of durability coming off a fantastic season with a playoff participant? That sounds exactly like what the Nationals want in a No. 5 starter. Trouble is, Lohse is coming off the best season of his career at age 34 and his agent (Boras, again) is going to want to parlay that into as many years as possible. The Nationals are less inclined to make a long-term investment in another starter ... unless that starter is viewed as a true cornerstone arm like Greinke.

RHP ANIBAL SANCHEZ
He's made at least 31 starts, thrown at least 195 innings and posted a sub-4.00 ERA each of the last three seasons. That's an ideal No. 5 starter who could be had much cheaper than Lohse. The Nationals saw plenty of Sanchez at his absolute best against them when he pitched for the Marlins -- he's 8-0 with a 1.97 ERA in 19 career starts against them -- so you've got to believe they have a favorable impression of him.

RHP DAN HAREN
It was a wild weekend for Haren, who at one point appeared to be headed to the Cubs via a trade but ultimately was allowed by the Angels to become a free agent. The 32-year-old is everything you'd want in a free agent starter: durable enough to make 30 starts for eight straight seasons, dominant enough to post a .565 winning percentage and a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 4-to-1. The only red flag with Haren -- the only one -- is his back, which acted up some this season and probably contributed to his fastball velocity dropping all the way down to 88 mph. It would be a bit of a gamble, but a healthy Haren is as good as just about any pitcher in the game.

CF B.J. UPTON
Here's another name who has been linked to the Nationals for what feels like ages. Rizzo inquired several times about trading for Upton, but the Rays' asking price was always too high. Now he's available via free agency. Again, though, the Nationals must decide whether the 28-year-old Virginia native who still hasn't realized his true potential is worth the price ... and whether he's a significant upgrade over whoever off their current roster would have to go to make room for him.

RHP HIROKI KURODA
Kuroda may simply accept the Yankees' $13.3 million qualifying offer and return for a second season in the Bronx. Or he may want to return to Los Angeles, where his big-league career began. But if there's any chance of convincing the 37-year-old to come to D.C., Rizzo might want to try it. Kuroda is a highly reliable veteran whose performance didn't drop at all after moving from spacious Dodger Stadium to cozy Yankee Stadium. And he won't require a long-term deal, perhaps willing to sign for only one year (though at a hefty price). At those terms, he would seem a really good fit for the Nationals.

LHP JEREMY AFFELDT
The Nationals would love to re-sign Sean Burnett. But if they can't, they're going to be in the market for another left-handed reliever, and Affeldt is the only other quality one out there. The 33-year-old was fantastic for the Giants, both during the regular season and postseason, and he'd certainly be a valuable piece to the Nats' bullpen. But given the lack of good lefty relievers on the market this winter, neither Affeldt nor Burnett will come cheap.

Strasburg, long balls power Nationals past Cardinals

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Strasburg, long balls power Nationals past Cardinals

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Stephen Strasburg struck out nine including seven of eight in one stretch and the Washington Nationals got home runs from Michael Taylor and Danny Espinosa in a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night.

Taylor's second leadoff homer of the year ended a 22-inning scoreless drought for the Nationals. Espinosa's first of the season was a two-run shot that capped a four-run fourth against Mike Leake (0-3).

Strasburg (4-0) gave up two runs on eight hits in seven innings with one walk. He has 29 strikeouts in 22 1-3 innings his last three outings. Jonathan Papelbon earned his eighth save in nine chances for Washington, which is 5-0 in Strasburg's starts.

Matt Adams hit a two-run homer off Blake Treinen in the eighth for St. Louis, who are 18-9 against Washington the last five seasons.

Leake, who got a five-year, $80 million free agent deal, gave up five runs in seven innings and has a 5.83 ERA.

Daniel Murphy and Jayson Werth had an RBI apiece in the fourth.

TRAINER'S ROOM

C Wilson Ramos (bereavement list) could return this weekend after leaving following the death of his grandfather. Manager Dusty Baker said the team would be patient, adding "death has no season."

UP NEXT

Jaime Garcia (1-1, 3.24) is holding opponents to a .198 average, among the league's best. Joe Ross (2-0, 0.54) was among just five NL starters to not allow a homer, with a minimum of 20 innings.

RELATED: NATS SEE TOUGH ROAD TRIP AS GOOD TEST FOR WHERE THEY'RE AT

Nationals turn to Strasburg as they start series with Cardinals

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Nationals turn to Strasburg as they start series with Cardinals

Nats (14-7) vs. Cardinals (12-10) at Busch Stadium

The Nationals will look to bounce back after getting swept by the Phillies as they head to St. Louis for a series with the Cardinals.

Stephen Strasburg (3-0, 2.17) will take the mound for Washington looking to continue his impressive start to the 2016 season. Strasburg has never started a season 4-0.

The Cardinals will turn to Mike Leake who has allowed at least four runs in each of his four starts this saeson.

First pitch: 8:15 p.m.
TV: MASN 2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Stepehen Strasburg vs. Cardinals - Mike Leake

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
RHP Stephen Strasburg

CARDINALS

3B Matt Carpenter
RF Stephen Piscotty
LF Matt Holliday
1B Matt Adams
CF Randal Grichuk
2B Jeed Gyorko
SS Aledmys Diaz
C Eric Fryer
RHP Mike Leake

Follow along with GameView here.

Nats see tough road trip as good test for where they're at

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USA Today Sports Images

Nats see tough road trip as good test for where they're at

There is a significant contrast in the quality of teams the Nationals have faced thus far this season through 21 games and the caliber of clubs they are about to see on their upcoming 10-game road trip. It's a major scheduling quirk and as of Friday morning, the Nats are standing right on the middle of it.

Behind them is the second-easiest schedule in baseball to this point based on opponents win percentage. And up ahead are three teams that finished among the four best records in baseball last season. The worst team they will play coming up on this road swing based on their 2015 regular season record is the Kansas City Royals. They led the American League with 95 wins and later won the World Series.

The trip begins in St. Louis against a Cardinals team that led baseball with 100 wins last season. And the journey closes with the Chicago Cubs, a 97-win team that reached the NL Championship Series.

It's an unusually difficult road trip, to say the least.

“It’s one of the tougher trips I think I’ve probably ever been on," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

"There are three or four times on the schedule where you say, 'Hey this is going to be a heck of a road trip,'" manager Dusty Baker said. "It's going to be a test."

The Cardinals and Cubs boast the two highest-scoring offenses in baseball right now. The Cards have a +48 run differential and the Cubs - who have the best record in baseball at 16-5 - are +74. 

The Cubs and Royals rank in the top 10 in MLB in team ERA, the Cubs are second only to the Nats in baseball in the category. The Royals have the seventh-best bullpen ERA and everyone knows they can play defense.

All three teams will present challenges and, if you ask some members of the Nats, that could be a good thing.

"This is going to be a test to see -- a barometer to see how good we are right now," Baker said. "We're not full-forces yet, we haven't been and we've done pretty well, because Ben Revere, one of our igniters, is getting ready… but it's going to be exciting."

"You enjoy the challenge," Zimmerman added. "I think you get to see what we’re really made of. Go out and play three really, really good teams and I think the guys in here are excited for it.”

The Nationals are going to learn a lot about themselves over the next 10 days, that's for sure.