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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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Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Though they’re still fighting for home field advantage in next week’s division series, the Nationals understand they’re in a strange part of their season.  

Sure, playoff seeding is plenty important. These last regular season games count, et cetera et cetera. But Washington already clinched the NL East title, and already knows its playoff opponent is going to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. So it’s not a surprise that players are willing to admit how difficult it can be to keep their foot on the gas pedal these days.

“Once you win the division, there’s that exhale, that sigh of relief,” said Jayson Werth after Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.”..You kind of let off the throttle a little bit.”

And when a team takes that approach, health becomes the top priority. It’s a mindset that was on full display Friday night when Werth was removed from the game in the seventh inning as a precaution due to back and side tightness.

 “We can't afford to lose anybody else,” manager Dusty Baker said. “So we decided that, it was wet, on the chilly side, and I decided I couldn't take a chance on him being injured too.”

Werth said that team trainers ruled out a strain or a pull, and that he’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the lineup on Saturday afternoon.  

Still, any injury the Nats suffer this time of the year feels magnified, especially given the last week: Bryce Harper jammed his left thumb, Wilson Ramos tore his ACL and Daniel Murphy was shut down until the playoffs with a glute strain. Not to mention that Stephen Strasburg will likely miss the club’s entire October run.

“The biggest thing is right now is to get everybody healthy for the postseason,” Stephen Drew said. “I think that's key. We got some guys out and hopefully we'll be ready for the playoffs.”

So while every team says it’d like to head into the postseason firing on all cylinders, the Nats’ case shows that it’s not always realistic. Bottling up momentum and carrying into the biggest games of the year is the ideal, of course. But sometimes heading into the tournament with all your horses in tact works too — seeding be damned.

“Obviously home field advantage is important to us, and we want that,” Werth said. “But at the same time, we also feel like we’ve done our job a little bit. So there’s a balance there.....you don’t want to do something where you can put yourself in jeopardy, where you can really get hurt.”

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Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-4 loss over the Miami Marlins on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: If the Nationals want to sew up home field advantage in their first playoff series, they still have more work to do — and only have two more games to do it.

The Nats were unable to help their cause Friday night, falling to the Marlins 7-4 in a rain-soaked affair that began nearly two hours after its scheduled start time.  

While the offense couldn’t come through late, it was starter A.J. Cole that put the Nats in a bind in this one. The 24-year-old rookie right hander forcing Dusty Baker to go to his bullpen early after yielding four runs (two earned) on six hits in just three innings of work.

But all it took was one inning for the Nats to even things up. Anthony Rendon and Stephen Drew opened the fourth with back-to-back solo home runs, and RBI hits by Jose Lobaton and Trea Turner make it 4-4 heading into the fifth.

The bullpen subsequently cracked, however, yielding a runs in the sixth, seventh and ninth innings to give the Marlins a 7-4 edge. The offense couldn’t mount a late rally, and that was all she wrote.

What it means: The magic number for home field advantage in the NLDS remains at two. As of this post, the Dodgers have yet to complete their game against the Giants, so there’s still a chance it could fall to one by Saturday morning.

Rendon reaches homer milestone: With his fourth-inning solo shot, Rendon became the latest Nats hitter join the 20 home run club. In fact, the Nats tied the 1965 and 2003 Braves as the only National League clubs with six players with 20-plus long balls in a season. (Interestingly enough, the Cardinals mathed that feat the Nats later in night after a Matt Holliday home run.)

But back to Rendon: For all the talk that the Nats offense sans Wilson Ramos will suffer, remember that Rendon has been one of the team’s best hitters since the All-Star break. Since then, he’s notched 11 homers, 20 doubles and 51 RBI. In other words, he’s fully returned to his ‘Tony Two-Bags’ form of 2014.

More accolades for Turner: D.C.’s favorite rookie had another one of his patented performances Friday night, going 2-for-3 with an RBI single, a triple and two stolen bases. He became the fourth player in MLB history to notch 10 home runs and 30 steals in less than 100 games, joining Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonds and current Nats first base coach Davey Lopes. Since the break, he leads the team in both extra-base hits and steals. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Harper struggles: In his first game back since injuring his left thumb, Bryce Harper looked looked very much like a hitter trying to regain his timing at the plate. In four at-bats, he struck out four times — three of them swinging. It’s just one game, of course, but he and the Nats are quickly running out of time to rev up for October.

Up next: The Nats will continue their quest to gain home field advantage in the middle game of this three-game set. Washington will send Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.86 ERA) to the hill to oppose Marlins lefty Wei-Yin Chen (5-4, 5.02 ERA).