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How much is Burnett worth to Nats?

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How much is Burnett worth to Nats?

Plenty of attention -- and rightfully so -- has been given to the Nationals' ongoing attempt to re-sign Adam LaRoche. And a good deal of time has been spent debating the Nationals' need for a new No. 5 starter with Edwin Jackson unlikely to be in the picture next season.

There's another brand-new free agent, though, who deserves to be mentioned right behind those two, because he has played a huge role on this ballclub for more than three seasons and would continue to play a significant role in 2013 and beyond if he's re-signed.

Sean Burnett may not have appeared in as many headlines during the Nationals' 98-win season but he was no minor player on this team.

Burnett, like LaRoche, declined his side of a mutual option on a 2013 contract with the Nats, this one worth $3.5 million. The decision wasn't unexpected; Burnett had made it clear all along he wanted to become a free agent and attempt to secure a multi-year deal. But it does add another important item to general manager Mike Rizzo's growing offseason to-do list.

Like LaRoche, Burnett has expressed a desire to stay in Washington. He's performed very well here over the last 3 1/2 seasons, with a combined 2.81 ERA and 1.210 WHIP over 245 relief appearances.

And though he struggled somewhat during the season half of this season, that was almost certainly a direct result of a bone spur in his elbow that was removed in a minor surgical procedure after the Nationals were eliminated from the playoffs.

There's no reason to believe Burnett, who turned 30 in September, can't continue to be a highly effective reliever. The question is how much he's likely to command on the open market, and how much the Nationals are willing to spend to keep him.

By turning down a guaranteed $3.5 million salary in 2013, Burnett is banking on his ability to secure a long-term contract. He'll almost certainly seek a three-year deal, one that could total as much as $15 million.

Are the Nationals going to be willing to make that kind of commitment to a reliever, one who isn't going to be used as a closer unless there's a string of injuries to others?

The conventional wisdom around baseball circles is that long-term contracts for relievers are rarely wise. The up-and-down nature of the job produces few sure things, and there have been far more regrettable contracts given to setup men and left-handed specialists over the year than laudable ones.

For the Nationals, though, this isn't merely a decision about Burnett's worth or likelihood of continued success. It's also about what other left-handed relief options they have. And they don't have many.

Veteran Michael Gonzalez also is a free agent and may not return next season. Tom Gorzelanny remains arbitration-eligible and could be brought back for roughly $3 million to $3.5 million, but his value is as a long reliever, not someone who enters to record one or two big outs late in games.

The organizational pipeline is short on left-handed relievers who are big-league ready, so the Nationals would probably have to explore the free agency route if they don't retain Burnett.

And a quick perusal of the free agent market suggests Burnett is one of only a handful of quality available left-handed relievers. The others: Jeremy Affeldt (who made a real name for himself over the last month with the World Series champion Giants), J.P. Howell (who has had an up-and-down career with the Rays) and Randy Choate (a true "LOOGY" who only faces one batter per game).

Burnett might well be the best of the bunch, certainly no worse than No. 2 behind Affeldt.

Point is, the Nationals really do need Burnett, but so will several other teams in the market for a lefty (including the Cardinals, Dodgers and possibly Giants if they don't re-sign Affeldt).

The Nationals have until tomorrow morning to exclusively negotiate with Burnett. You've got to assume he'll want the opportunity to talk to other clubs, if for no other reason than to drive the price up, even if he ultimately prefers to return to D.C.

All of this creates a bit of a dilemma for Rizzo and the Nationals. They obviously want and need Burnett in 2013. But do they want and need him so much they're willing to fork over some serious coin over several future seasons for a position that doesn't normally command that kind of commitment?

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What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

It was just a few weeks ago that Joe Ross' postseason availability was in question, and if he could return in time, whether he would pitch out of the Nationals' bullpen and or as a starter wasn't clear. Manager Dusty Baker wondered aloud if he would get his young right-hander back, even as Stephen Strasburg dealt with elbow injuries.

The progress Ross has made in a short period of time since is remarkable and after his 90-pitch outing on Thursday afternoon against the Diamondbacks, the 23-year-old looks and feels ready for the playoffs, and not just to pitch in relief, either.

"I'm hoping I get the opportunity to start, but that's up to them," Ross said. "But I'll take any opportunity I get to pitch and go out there and compete. I just want to help the team in any way I can."

Ross wasn't great on Thursday in his third start back from the disabled list. He only made it four innings, as his pitch count soared early. But in giving up just one run, he's now pitched 9 2/3 innings in three games back. During that stretch he's allowed three runs and struck out 14.

[RELATED: Wilson Ramos hopes to be back with Nationals]

It has been a process of baby steps for the Nats starter, a slow progression back from right shoulder inflammation, an injury rehab that featured a setback in late July. Now, though, he is essentially back to normal, just in time for the NL Division Series which begins next week.

"I feel good. I felt really good today. I felt really good last start. I guess it's just a point of executing pitches," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind really on whether I can go out and compete."

Baker mentioned that Ross could pitch in releif early in the NLDS against the Dodgers. That could keep him available for a start later on, if it's kept short like a normal bullpen session.

But one has to wonder if Ross has improved his case enough to pitch Game 3 of that series, given Gio Gonzalez' recent struggles. The lefty has allowed 19 earned runs in his last 23 innings going back five starts.

Regardless, Ross has certainly come a long way in just three MLB outings.

"He looks ready," second baseman Wilmer Difo said through an interpreter.

With all the negative injury news the Nationals have received in recent days, between Wilson Ramos' season-ending injury and Strasburg essentially ruled out for the NLDS, having Ross fully back in the mix is a nice change of fortune for the NL East champs.

[RELATED: Matt Belisle sounds like safe bet for Nats playoff roster]

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Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos won't be on the field for the Washington Nationals when the team takes on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the N.L. Divisional Series next week.

The 2016 N.L. All-Star catcher will undergo surgery to repair the ACL he tore in his right knee on Monday night against the Diamondbacks

Ramos has been arguably the Nationals' most constant offensive threat this season, and had positioned himself as the team's backstop for the foreseeable future.

But the injury changed everything.

Not just because the surgery and rehab will stretch well into Spring Training, but because the 29-year-old Ramos will become a free agent at the end of the season. On top of that, a second ACL injury (He tore it in 2012 as well) means that taking the field everyday as a catcher may not be a viable option for him much longer.

"Unfortunately, this injury happened so close to the end and it may affect whether I’m able to stay with a National League team or not," Ramos told reporters prior to the Nationals' 5-3 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

"But if it’s up to me, I definitely would like to keep playing for the Nationals and play as long as I can."

Ramos is a solid defensive catcher, but his biggest strength is at the plate. Being able to be a part of a lineup everyday is where he is most valuable, and that may mean playing in the American League, where he can serve as the designated hitter and fill in as catcher.

But this doesn't mean Ramos is done as a member of the Nationals, just that he's aware his time could be coming to an end.