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Nats in an advantageous position

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Nats in an advantageous position

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nationals did very little on Day One of the Winter Meetings. They signed Zach Duke to a one-year, big-league contract. They signed Bill Bray to a one-year, minor-league contract.

But it's still probably fair to say the Nats emerged victorious at the Opryland Resort for one major reason: The market for Adam LaRoche continued to shrink while the pool of available starting pitchers remained deep.

Both were positive developments for Mike Rizzo, who has the ability over the next few days and weeks to really position his team as World Series favorites entering 2013.

Rizzo described his approach to these meetings as "keeping a low profile," but perhaps the better phrase would be "waiting to pounce." That applies both to LaRoche and his pursuit of a fifth starter to bolster what is already one of the game's best rotations.

In each instance, Rizzo is dealing from a position of strength and doesn't feel like he needs to cater to the demands of others.

Start with LaRoche, who entered the offseason as the top available first baseman and figured to have a good number of options on the open market. But as became clearer and clearer today, the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner simply doesn't have as many attractive alternatives to D.C. as he initially hoped.

The Red Sox's morning signing of Mike Napoli took them out of the mix. By late afternoon, word out of Texas was that the Rangers aren't all that interested.

Thus eliminates two American League destinations, each one attractive in its own right for LaRoche, who in addition to earning the last big payday of his career wants to give himself a good chance to win the first championship of his career.

Who does that leave in the sweepstakes? Other than the Nationals, LaRoche's only other choices could be the Orioles and Mariners. Baltimore's interest level remains a question mark, with league sources doubting owner Peter Angelos would offer LaRoche the three-year deal he seeks. Seattle might meet those demands, but a West Coast franchise with little hope of winning in the near future can't be all that appealing for the 33-year-old first baseman.

In other words, LaRoche may have no realistic choice but to take the Nationals' best offer, even if Rizzo holds firm to his two-year proposal.

Not that either side seems intent on striking an accord over the next few days.

"I don't think there's any urgency to set a deadline or a specific time period that we have to get it done," Rizzo said. "But needless to say, this decision is going to impact some of the other decisions that we make. So sooner rather than later is our preference. But we're not going to pressure Adam into anything that he's not comfortable doing."

Obviously, Michael Morse's status hinges on LaRoche's status, though Rizzo insisted he doesn't have to wait for the LaRoche situation to resolve itself before making a decision to trade Morse.

"If the right offer for any players came up, we would certainly act on it," the GM said. "Because we have such depth at that position, it reinforces the fact that if we get a deal that we like for anybody -- not specifying Michael Morse, but for anybody -- we would do it."

That depth includes Tyler Moore, and Rizzo said he'd be comfortable entering next season with the second-year slugger as his everyday first baseman if need be.

As for a potential Morse trade, Rizzo said everything has been precipitated by other clubs contacting him, not the other way around.

"He's drawn interest, yeah," Rizzo said. "We've fielded calls for him. We have not made one call about him. We've fielded a lot of calls, and you can see the reason why. He's a middle-of-the-lineup hitter that puts up big numbers and hits for average and for power."

Again, Rizzo is in the advantageous position here, not forced into doing something but free to wait and strike when it makes the most sense.

The same applies to his pursuit of another starting pitcher. With four quality young arms (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler) already locked up for at least the next three years, there's no pressure for the Nationals to acquire another big-name guy.

But they certainly can if they want. And they do.

"The most impactful guy that we can get is always what we're trying to do," Rizzo said, using one of his favorite (albeit made up) words.

That could be Zack Greinke, the biggest prize of the winter who is expected to command a nine-figure deal from some of the richest clubs in the sport (including the Dodgers and Rangers).

It could be James Shields, a legitimate front-line starter for the perennially contending Rays who most definitely is available in a trade for whatever club is willing to give up the most young talent.

Or it could be one of the 10 or so other available starters, any one of which would help bolster an already deep rotation.

"We've got a big list," Rizzo said. "As we work through the process, we'll focus in on a smaller group and ultimately focus in on who our primary target is, and have alternative plans if we don't get the primary target."

Again, advantage Nats.

They couldn't reside in a much better position than this, owners of baseball's best record one year ago, with nearly their entire roster already locked up for the next few years, free to pursue just about anyone they want.

That's a far cry from the position in which this franchise used to reside. When the Winter Meetings were last in Nashville five years ago, the Nationals' biggest move was the acquisition of Elijah Dukes.

The situation they were in at the time demanded they take a flyer on a player who most likely wouldn't work out.

Not anymore. The Nationals are good. They're going to continue to be good. And there isn't a prominent free agent or trade target who wouldn't want to come play in Washington.

Who'd have thunk it?

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Nats pitcher A.J. Cole suspended by MLB, is appealing

Nats pitcher A.J. Cole suspended by MLB, is appealing

Nationals starter A.J. Cole has been suspended five games and issued an undisclosed fine by Major League Baseball for his role in the benches clearing altercation between the Nats and Pirates on Sunday in Pittsburgh, a ban the rookie has already decided to appeal.

Cole is in line to pitch for the Nationals on Friday against the Marlins. That start is in jeopardy if the suspension is upheld, or he decides to drop it.

Cole, 24, threw behind Pirates first baseman Jung Ho Kang in the third inning of the Nationals' win over the Pirates. It was after Kang faked a tag at third base on a triple by Bryce Harper, a move that led to Harper jamming his left thumb on the play.

Harper has since missed two games with the injury, but X-rays showed no broken bones. He is expected to return to the Nats soon, possibly on Wednesday.

Cole is 1-2 with a 5.09 ERA this season. He has allowed 12 earned runs in his last 16 2/3 innings pitched. Friday would be his final chance to prove himself before the Nats decide their playoff roster, but he may not get it.

[RELATED: X-ray on Bryce Harper's left thumb brings good news]

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Wilson Ramos' ACL tear devastating news for Nationals, his future

Wilson Ramos' ACL tear devastating news for Nationals, his future

When Wilson Ramos collapsed to the ground clutching his right knee behind the plate at Nationals Park on Monday night, the Nats feared the worst as it was the same leg in which he had his ACL and MCL repaired back in 2012. On Tuesday, an MRI confirmed those fears. Ramos tore his ACL again and is not only out for the entirety of the postseason, but most of next year as well.

It happened in the final week of the regular season with the Nats preparing for the playoffs. It also happened just over a month before Ramos is set to hit free agency for the first time in his career.

There is never a good time to tear an ACL, but one would be hard pressed to find a worse time for Ramos to do it than now.

“This close to playoffs, his option year. There’s never an opportune time, but this was the most inopportune time for this to happen at this point," manager Dusty Baker said.

"It's unfortunate. Wilson was having an All-Star season, really a breakout season for himself. It's disappointing. I feel bad for him," GM Mike Rizzo said. 

Ramos, 29, earned an All-Star nod this year and for good reason. He hit .307 with 22 homers and 80 RBI and emerged as one of the best catchers in baseball.

Now his future hangs in the balance, as it will be much harder to get a lucrative long-term deal in free agency.

Rizzo said it was too soon to know how Ramos can return from re-tearing his ACL.

"He just did it yesterday. We just got the diagnosis. We're going to see what the doctors say and we'll make our assessments after that," Rizzo said.

Baker spoke earlier this year about his hopes for the Nats to re-sign Ramos. On Tuesday he was asked about Ramos' future and alluded to that idea again.

"It’s time for us to, I think as a whole, maybe to take care of him, too, because he’s taken pretty good care of us,” Baker said.

Any decision about Ramos will be made months from now. In the short-term, the Nats have a playoff run to consider as they chase a World Series. In for Ramos will be backups Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino. Both have filled in well at times this season, but Ramos is leaving big shoes to fill.

“All of our catchers are very good catchers. It’s just that he is not only the top offensive catcher on our team, a big part of our offense, he’s one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. We’ll really miss his offense," Baker said. "I think Loby and Severino can replace (him) on defense, but it’s up to some of the other guys to offset his loss on the offensive side of the ball.”

Lobaton is dealing with a minor right ankle injury, but said he is ready to step in. He was in the starting lineup for Tuesday night's game against the Diamondbacks.

Lobaton is a good friend and longtime teammate of Ramos and spoke to him after the injury was diagnosed.

"He was sad. Anybody can be sad in that moment, in that situation. He’s been playing good all year, doing really good for the team, and now you don’t have a chance to go with the team in the playoffs," Lobaton said. "It’s really sad for me, not only for me but for the team. We’re praying for him and that he can get better soon.”

It won't be easy to move forward without Ramos, but the Nationals have no choice at this point.

[RELATED: X-ray on Bryce Harper's left thumb brings good news]

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