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.

Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

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Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

The NL East division will not be decided in the month of May, but the contrast in fortunes for the Nats and Mets was dramatic on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

Yes, the Nats only lead the Mets by 1 1/2 games in the division after homering them to death in a 7-4 series-tying victory. But they beat them once again with a huge contribution from ex-Met Daniel Murphy and once again at the expense of beleaguered super hero Matt Harvey.

From the moment Murphy left the Mets to sign a three-year deal with the Nationals, it became part of the fabric of one of baseball's best contemporary rivalries. And the way he's played not just overall this season, but in head-to-head matchups with the Mets, has only stoked that fire.

Murphy went 2-for-4 with his seventh homer of the year on Tuesday night and now has two homers in four at-bats against Harvey. He has two RBI in each of his last three games against his former team and has quickly become a pest for the organization he spent 10 distinguished years with.

Harvey, on the other hand, has allowed 11 earned runs combined in his last two starts, both against the Nationals. He is in the midst of a shocking downfall and the Nats are playing a hands-on role.

Only four times did a Nationals hitter swing and miss at a pitch Harvey threw on Tuesday. That matched a season-low. The three homers he surrendered matched a career-high. This is all just one start after the Nats scored nine runs (6 ER) on Harvey, which set a new career mark.

“His velocity started out good," manager Dusty Baker said. "He was 95, 96 miles per hour, then his velocity dropped to 92, 93. His slider wasn’t as sharp as it usually is. You gotta get them when they’re down.”

Murphy, on the other hand, is carrying over the power surge the Mets themselves witnessed last fall. After hitting seven homers in 14 postseason games, Murphy has seven in 45 outings this season. That puts him on pace for 25 homers, nearly double his career-best of 14 set just last year.

Having spent five years around Harvey in New York, Murphy has a unique perspective of his former teammate now facing him from the other side.

"It's tough to tell," Murphy said. "I have all the confidence in the world that he's gonna throw the ball well... I hope it's not against us, or me personally. But we know how good he is, we saw it all year last year. And again, as a pitcher or a hitter, we're never as far away as we think."

Murphy isn't the only player on the Nats who wishes Harvey well, despite his presence in the NL East.

"I know he’s still going to be their go-to guy coming down the stretch and coming down the stretch these guys are going to be right there," center fielder Ben Revere said. 

"Fastball seems the same. He’s throwing strikes. It’s baseball. We’ve been getting the key knocks. Nothing we can do about it. Just goes to show that every pitcher in the big leagues is going to have some rough stretches."

"His stuff is electric. To me he's still the same pitcher that comes after you," third baseman Anthony Rendon said. "Like anybody else, you go through a rough patch, and I'm pretty sure he'll find his way out like every other good pitcher does."

Murphy's two hits on Tuesday - the second against reliever Antonio Bastardo - gave him his 23rd multi-hit game of the season. That means more than half of his games this year have featured multiple hits. He's now batting an MLB-best .392. Only one batter (Yoenis Cespedes) on the Mets is hitting better than .283 at this point in the season.

“I've seen some pretty good hitters, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor," Baker said. "[Murphy] hasn’t had a down time the entire year. He’s concentrating. He’s at a very high concentration level. When he’s getting his pitch he’s not missing many. Murph’s been the acquisition of the year in baseball. I’m just glad that we have him.”

Harvey's matchups with the Nats over his last two starts have put his career at a momentary crossroads. After his last outing, Tuesday's start was in question. The Mets ultimately decided to keep him in the rotation, but what about his next start? Will he take the mound?

His previous outing was so bad it convinced Mets fans - who booed him at home five days ago - to organize a social media campaign to bus droves of New Yorkers down to D.C. for Tuesday's game. About a hundred of them gathered in right field and were heard loudly before the game and through the first several innings with chants in support of Harvey.

By the fifth inning there were chants of 'Harrrr-veyyy' coming from the crowd, but not from Mets fans. Nationals fans turned the tables and made for yet another embarrassing moment for the Dark Knight of Gotham.

Harvey, for what it's worth, declined to speak to reporters after his latest disaster. Not facing the New York media who are ready to pounce all over you? That may feel good for a night, but it won't go over well in the coming days. Might be wise to avoid the tabloids, Matt.

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

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USA TODAY Sports

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

Postgame analysis of the Nationals' 7-4 victory over the Mets on Tuesday night: 

How it happened: With both Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey looking sharp through the game's first three innings, this looked every bit like the pitchers duel we were expecting to see last week when the two aces faced off in New York. 

But like last Thursday's game, the Nats eventually pounced on Harvey and ended his night earlier than he would have liked. Their home run barrage started in the fourth inning, when Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon delivered back-to-back solo shots to give Washington a 2-1 lead. The next inning, after Bryce Harper hit a sac fly to make it 3-1, Daniel Murphy (who else?) delivered the big blow with a a two-run shot to give the Nats a 5-1 cushion and essentially yank Harvey from the game. 

After the Mets gone a run back in the seventh, Ben Revere hit his first home run as a member of the Nats to extend the lead to 6-2. The long ball parade continued in the eighth as Wilson Ramos got into the act with a solo shot. 

What it means: The Nats were able to bounce back after Monday night's blowout loss. At 28-18, they're 1 1/2 games up on the Mets for first place in the NL East. While it's clear that these are the two best teams in the division, there's plenty of season left before it can be determined which club is truly superior.  

Strasburg extends winning streak: It's pretty simple at this point: if Strasburg takes the mound, the Nats win. That's been the case now for 14 consecutive starts — extending a franchise record. Once again, Strasburg was solid against the Mets, allowing two earned runs on four hits over 6 2/3 innings. His 11 strikeouts on the night marked the fifth time this season that he has registered double digit punch outs in a start. Strasburg is now 8-0 on the year with a 2.79 ERA and 86 strikeouts. Not too shabby. 

Nats rough up Harvey again: For the second time in less than a week, Washington's offense put up a few crooked numbers on the scoreboard to chase Harvey early in the game. Including Tuesday's outing, the Mets struggling ace has allowed 14 runs on 16 hits over 7 2/3 innings against the Nats in two starts. Ouch. If Harvey winds up temporarily removed from New York's rotation, Mets fans can thank their division rivals from D.C. 

Murphy keeps hurting his old club: With yet another solid performance, the Nats second baseman might be making the Mets wish they would have kept him around a little while longer. In five games against his former team, Murphy is hitting 8-for-21 (.380) with two home runs — both coming off Harvey — and 6 RBI. 

Up next: The rubber match in this series will be a matinee tilt on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. The Nats will send Tanner Roark (3-3, 2.89 ERA) to oppose Mets rookie Steven Matz (6-1, 2.81 ERA).

Dusty Baker says Nats have to 'ride the wave' of Strasburg's win streak

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Dusty Baker says Nats have to 'ride the wave' of Strasburg's win streak

The formula has been a simple one for the Nationals of late: if Stephen Strasburg takes the mound, Washington will emerge victorious. It's been the case in the 27-year-old right hander's last 13 outings, a streak that sets a new franchise record for wins during a pitcher's starts. 

Whether or not Strasburg's remarkable run is sustainable, Dusty Baker is willing to enjoy it for however long it lasts. 

"Whatever Stras is doing," the Nats manager said, "you just ride it. It's like surfing. You ride the wave to the beach and jump off and just catch another wave."

Strasburg is 7-0 on the year with a 2.80 ERA — a very good mark, but still not up there with the National League's elite arms such as Jake Arrieta (1.29) and Clayton Kershaw (1.48). Baker said that one of the reasons the Nats have flourished with Strasburg on the mound is that he continues to be the beneficiary of good run support. Take his last outing, for instance, where the offense jumped on Mets starter Matt Harvey in the third inning to create a 9-1 cushion to pitch through the rest of the way. 

But Baker was quick to point out that, run support aside, Strasburg is displaying an important trait that many aces around the game show when they're on a roll. 

"I don't care what it is, he's still 7-0," Baker said. "I'm sure everybody would trade to do that.....part of the reason he's 7-0 is because he's been out there without his best stuff and still managed to keep us in the ballgame until our offense came through."

If Strasburg is to extend the streak to 14 wins in a row, he'll need to do so against a Mets lineup that will get a second look at him in less than a week. That scenario didn't work out so well for rotation mate Gio Gonzalez, who was throttled Monday night for seven earned runs after faring well against New York's offense just a week ago.

But, sticking with the wave analogy, Baker says Strasburg and the Nats should adopt the surfer's mentality of not worrying about impending disaster. 

"If you think about falling off, you gonna fall," Baker said. "So don't think about falling, don't think about when it's going to end."