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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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Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper isn't one to keep his opinions to himself. The Nationals slugger is outspoken about what he wants, whether that's to "Make Baseball Fun Again" or to make at least $400 million on his next contract

On Wednesday, he gave his take on how the Nats should be investing their money this summer. Here's Harper responding to a tweet from ESPN's Jim Bowden.

Harper's message: Players over everything else. Sorry, gift shop. 

It's plain to see where the 2015 NL MVP is going with this. Obviously, he wants as much talent around him as possible for a chance to win the World Series. 

Matt Wieters, a four-time All-Star catcher, and Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer, could be significant additions to Washington's roster. 

Harper is set to become a free agent in 2018, at which point an organization like the New York Yankees will be prepared to offer him both a massive salary and a massive investment in the players around him.

The slugger probably hopes his current team will try to surround him with winning pieces in an effort to keep him. But if a report about the Nationals' reaction to his contract demands proves accurate, they may have another agenda. 

There's Harper drama around the Nationals? Just a regular Wednesday here in Washington.

MORE NATIONALS: Nationals avoid arbitration with Harper, three others

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Nationals avoid arbitration, reach deal with Bryce Harper and three others

Nationals avoid arbitration, reach deal with Bryce Harper and three others

The Washington Nationals avoided arbitration and agreed to one-year deals today with Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Tanner Roark and newly acquired catcher Derek Norris.

If team's and players didn't agree to contracts by today's 1 p.m. ET deadline, an independent arbitrator will rule on the contract at a later date and decide how much the player will play for in 2017. 

Harper and the Nationals agreed to a $13.625 million deal, which was significantly more than the $9.3 million contract that was projected by MLB Trade Rumors. Last season, coming off his 2015 MVP campaign, Harper made $5 million. The 24-year-old will be a free agent after the 2018 season. 

Harper is coming off a disappointing season by his standards, in which he hit just .243 with 24 homers, which was way down from his total of 42 dingers in 2015. 

According to multiple reports, Rendon signed for $5.8 million, Roark signed for $4.315 million and Norris' deal was for $4.2 million.

Roark made just $543,400 last season, which he vastly out-performed. Roark was one of the most consistent pitchers in the National League last year as he won 16 games and posted a 2.83 ERA in 210 innings of work. 

With today's signings, all of the Nationals' arbitration-eligible players are under contract for 2017. 

Related: Tanner Roark to replace Max Scherzer on World Baseball Classic roster