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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.

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What Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs means for the Nationals

What Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs means for the Nationals

After a weekend full of rumors and speculation, it appears as if Yankees' flamethrower Aroldis Chapman is in fact headed to Chicago to join the Cubs.

The Yankees will reportedly send the closer to "The Windy City" in exchange for highly prized 19-year-old shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres as well as outfield prospects Billy McKinney, Rashad Crawford and reliever Adam Warren, according to multiple reports

The Nationals were one of the other two teams in the mix for Chapman's services, but the organization was not willing to give up the amount of young talent the Yankees wanted in return.

RELATED: WHO SHOULD THE NATIONALS TARGET AT THE TRADE DEADLINE?

With Chapman — and his 105 MPH fastball — off the table, there are two questions that need to be addressed: 1) Where do the nationals go from here and 2) Did the Cubs just become unstoppable?

The market for elite or even high-end pitching at the trade deadline is at an all-time low this season.

Chapman was the top prize, and after him, the drop off is quite significant.

Both of the Nationals' playoff appearances have ended with late-game pitching blunders and it has become clear that Jonathan Papelbon, while competent as a closer, is far from a shutdown reliever, and a patchwork unit of Sammy Solis, Shaun Kelly, Felipe Rivero and Oliver Perez doesn't yet appear to be stable enough to handle an entire postseason run.

The issue for the Nationals is that in order to acquire a closer like, Wade Davis of the Royals, the team will have to be willing to give up at least two of their highly prized young stars like Trea Turner, Joe Ross, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez.. If the team was unwilling to do so for Chapman, would the do it for Davis? 

If the Nationals do think they are just "one piece away," they could give up far less for someone like Brewers' closer Jeremy Jeffress, who has a 2.23 ERA with 23 saves and 30 strikeouts this season.

But again, the playoffs.

Jeffress is in just his second full season in the big leagues and what the Nationals need isn't just a talent closer, but one who won't get rattled in big moments and can close the door when the pressure is on.

As for the Cubs, getting Chapman is expected to be the final piece to the 108-year puzzle.

If the Nationals want to make the World Series, they will — more likely than not — have to go through Wrigley Field. The Cubs made it very clear during their early Mary series that they will not let Bryce Harper beat them. They also made it very clear that opposing pitchers cannot make more than a single mistake.

Now that the Cubs solidified their bullpen with the hardest-throwing pitcher in professional baseball, no matter how good the Nationals are — and they are very good — they may need some October magic to stop the Cubs from representing the National League in the World Series.

RELATED: UPDATED MLB POWER RANKINGS

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MLB Trade Rumors: Who should the Nationals target before the deadline?

MLB Trade Rumors: Who should the Nationals target before the deadline?

BY JEREMY FIALKOW (@JeremyFialkow)

The Nationals may be good — very good — but they're not perfect, not yet. 

With the trade deadline fast approaching, GM Mike Rizzo's hunt to turn the roster he assembled into a legitimate World Series contender will grab the spotlight.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE NATIONALS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS

There's speculation around the league that Rizzo's plans start and end with adding a commanding bullpen arm, capable of shortening each game by three outs, at least.

Nevertheless, Washington has the assets on hand and in their farm system to secure anyone they fancy, whether it's an arm, a bat ... or both.

Fortunately for baseball fans (but unfortunately for the Nats) the 2016 season has been competitive all around, leaving teams deemed surefire sellers few and far between.

Still, Rizzo's team is in a desirable position with the always appreciated ability of flexibility, so which players will the Nats target before the July 31 trade deadline.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE NATIONALS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS

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Nats' Giolito returns to minors: 'It’s back to the drawing board'

Nats' Giolito returns to minors: 'It’s back to the drawing board'

For the second time in two weeks, the Nationals have sent top prospect Lucas Giolito back down to the minors to work on some things.

The former first round pick who many consider to be the top prospect in baseball has hit a rough patch this season. His talent has been well-documented and it's obvious on the mound. But the results at the big league level have yet to follow through three MLB starts and even Giolito will admit he is not where he wants to be.

The Nationals saw Giolito labor through 3 2/3 innings against the Padres on Sunday, then sent him to Triple-A Syracuse 90 minutes after the game was over. The kid who has the stuff to strike out anybody struck out nobody in his latest MLB turn and only got one swing-and-miss in his 66 pitches.

Something is off and they are determined to figure it out.

“I was talking to [Wilson] Ramos when I took him out and he said he just couldn’t get any of his secondary pitches over, his curveball or his changeup," manager Dusty Baker said. "He was really down to one pitch. And you have to have either tremendous gas, or you have to be able to locate to the max. It’s back to the drawing board with him.”

Baker has offered detailed critiques of Giolito since he debuted on June 28. Part of him has been impressed by the 22-year-old. But as a 21-year veteran MLB manager, he's seen countless top prospects and knows Giolito has plenty of work to do to reach his potential.

Last week when the Nats chose prospect Reynaldo Lopez to face the Dodgers instead of Giolito, Baker offered a blunt assessment.

"What we want… in the progress of certain players, it doesn't coincide sometimes," he said. 

Giolito's fastball reached 95 and 96 on Sunday, but sometimes dipped to the 91-93 range. That's fine, but nowhere near the upper 90s to 100 he has thrown in the past.

But, as Baker describes, it's not so much the velocity that is hurting him. It's the inability to command his curveball and changeup. Giolito only threw four changeups on Sunday.

"I wasn't commanding my off speed pitches for strikes," Giolito said. "So when I fall behind batters instead of being able to go to changeup or curveball, I was throwing fastballs and big league hitters are able to take my offspeed pitches out of the equation if I'm not throwing it for a strike. So, they kind of jumped on that."

Giolito's offspeed repertoire has been a work in progress all season and he has had trouble walking batters as a result. On Sunday, he walked three batters and now has nine through three big league starts. In the minors this season, Giolito has walked 36 batters in 84 2/3 innings.

During spring training, his first big league camp, Giolito's curveball and changeup were sharp. But as the season has progressed, he's seen his command come and go. 

"It's frustrating because my last outing at Syracuse I was commanding offspeed pitches pretty well and I had a good outing. I didn't translate that into today, obviously. I just have to keep working and try to get better at it," he said.

Along the way Giolito has made several minor mechanical adjustments. But lately, he has been working with a noticeable one, his delivery has been compacted to eliminate a full windup. Instead, Giolito almost works out of the stretch even when runners are not on base.

"I augmented my windup so that I already have my foot planted from where I start it from instead of the movement before hand, I felt like that's been a good change for me, kind of less movement going into the windup. I feel comfortable doing that," he said.

Making changes, both big and small, is part of the learning process for Giolito as a professional pitcher. The Nationals are confident he'll soon be able to tap into his immense potential, it's just going to take some time for him to figure it out.

[RELATED: Nats option Giolito, Taylor to make room on roster]

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