Quick Links

Nats in an advantageous position

mikerizzodaveyjohnson.png

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?

Quick Links

NL East: Cespedes' heroics keeping Mets alive in wild card race

NL East: Cespedes' heroics keeping Mets alive in wild card race

Don't count out the New York Mets just yet. 

The Nationals may be up nine games in the National League East, but their rivals from the Big Apple have slowly crawled their way back into the wild card picture.

The biggest reason why? The return of a healthy Yoenis Cespedes, who missed most of August with a quad injury. In the nine games since he’s been back, the 30-year-old outfielder has slashed .389/.450/.861 with five home runs, including Monday night’s extra-inning walk-off shot against fellow-wild card hopeful Miami Marlins.

"He's that kind of player," manager Terry Collins said via NJ.com. "You expect big things each and every time he goes up. He's one of those guys people pay to see him play. They see him come up to bat, and they know he can do something dangerous each and every time up."

After it seemed like the Mets were down and out, the Cespedes’ bat has resuscitated their playoff push. New York is 7-2 with Cespedes in the lineup since August 19, and its offense has averaged nearly six runs a game during that span. So just like 2015 postseason run, it's on Cespedes to lead the way. 

“Every time I see Cespedes at home plate, I feel like he's going to hit a homer," third baseman Jose Reyes said. "That's the way I feel in the dugout. I'm sure the other guys feel the same way. They had the opportunity to see him get hot last year, and for me, seeing him this year, it's unbelievable what he can do on the baseball field. Basically he can do whatever he wants to.”

New York's mini-surge has happened at the right time, with the club just 2 1/2 games out of a wild card spot and nearly a month left in the season. 

“We're going into September," Reyes said. "That's the way we want to play right now. That's a huge win against a Miami team that was in front of us....now we're in a better position."

Quick Links

Nats creating distance, Harper keeps rolling, can Murphy still win MVP?

Nats creating distance, Harper keeps rolling, can Murphy still win MVP?

Notes and observations from the Nats' 4-0 win over the Phillies on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park…

Roark bounces back: Tanner Roark rebounded nicely from his uneven start against the Orioles last Wednesday to go seven shutout innings with just four hits and a walk surrendered against the Phillies. It was the 16th time in 27 starts this season that Roark has lasted at least seven innings. And it was the eighth time this year that Roark has gone at least seven frames with zero earned runs allowed. No other pitcher has done that more times this year than Roark.

Roark's season ERA is now at 2.87, almost exactly the 2.85 mark he put up in 2014, his last full year as a starter. His ERA+, though, is better at 146, compared to the 131 he had in 2014. And his strikeout rate (7.1 SO/9) is better than it was two years ago (6.3).

Werth hits No. 19: Jayson Werth hit another homer on Monday night, his third in his last four games. He now has 19 on the year, one away from recording the sixth 20-homer season of his career. Werth has seven in August alone which ties the most he's ever hit in a month since he signed with the Nats before the 2011 season. His career-high is eight, set back in 2010 with the Phillies.

Harper gets on again: Bryce Harper didn't get a hit on Monday night, but he did walk and score a run and has now reached base in all 16 games he's played since coming back from the neck stiffness that kept him out a week. In those 16 games he's hit 22-for-61 (.361) with three homers, 17 RBI, 11 walks, 13 runs, six doubles and three steals. His OPS during that stretch is 1.098. That's not a huge sample size, 16 games, but it's more than half a month. If he can be anything close to that for the final month of the season, the Nats' lineup could look a lot different. 

Murphy keeps it up: It has perhaps gone unnoticed by some with the emergence of Trea Turner and the resurgence of Harper, but Daniel Murphy is having another very good month at the plate. With his two hits on Monday, Murphy is now 30-for-93 (.323) with five homers, 22 RBI, 20 runs and a .933 OPS in August. 

Murphy still has the best batting average in the NL at .345, but he has some work to do if he still wants to win the league's MVP award. He's currently tied for third in fWAR with Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford. They are both at 4.9, while Kris Bryant (7.6) and Corey Seager (6.9) are far ahead. It seems amazing that Murphy could be hitting .345 with 25 homers and 98 RBI on a first-place team and at this point be third in the MVP race, but that's where he realistically stands right now. Bryant and Seager also lead first-place teams. Bryant is hitting .305 with 35 homers and an MLB-best 109 runs scored, while Seager is batting .323 with 23 homers and also plays plus-defense at shortstop.

Magic number to 23: It's that time of year. With the Nats' win on Monday night and the Marlins having lost their third straight game, the Nats' magic number to win the NL East is now 23. That's pretty low for this point of the season and it could start going down very quickly. The Nats do not play a team outside of the NL East until they go to Pittsburgh on Sept. 23. And the Nats have the best intra-division record in baseball at 36-16.

[RELATED: Turner on playing like a little kid, rest helped Ramos]

SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE NATIONALS STORIES

Quick Links

Tanner Roark and Jayson Werth lead Nationals past Phillies 4-0

usatsi_9506474.jpg
USA Today Sports

Tanner Roark and Jayson Werth lead Nationals past Phillies 4-0

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Tanner Roark won't fly under the radar the way he's pitching.

Roark threw seven impressive innings, Jayson Werth hit a solo homer and the Washington Nationals beat the Philadelphia Phillies 4-0 on Monday night.

Roark (14-7) allowed four singles and struck out five. Marc Rzepczynski tossed a perfect eighth and Mark Melancon finished off the four-hitter.

"It would be fine if people don't notice because maybe he can surprise some people," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "I don't think he really cares. He just wants the victories."

The wins are piling up for Roark, who went from winning 15 games in 2014 to pitching in relief last year. He's more focused on helping the NL East-leading Nationals win the division.

"August is a grinder month," Roark said. "Everybody has to stay locked in. We all have bumps and bruises but we have to keep going."

Phillies rookie Jake Thompson (1-4) allowed two runs and seven hits in seven innings. It was the longest and best of his five career starts.

Werth lined a solo shot to left in the first against his former team. It was his third homer in four games. A member of Philadelphia's 2008 World Series championship team, Werth was greeted by boos, as usual.

"Home runs come in streaks. When you start hitting a couple, you think about it," Baker said. "I knew he was locked in watching him in BP. He was hitting them out and keeping them low."

Bryce Harper raced home from first on Anthony Rendon's single to left-center to make it 2-0 in the first. Clint Robinson and Trea Turner had RBI singles off Frank Herrmann in the ninth.

Thompson settled in nicely after a rough start. His last pitch was a nasty curve that froze Turner for strike three.

"It was night and day from my performance in the first four (starts)," Thompson said. "It's kind of a relief. It feels a lot better."

Roark didn't need much support. The righty stifled the Phillies again. He's 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA against them this season.

The Nationals snapped a two-game losing streak. They have a nine-game lead over the Marlins and Mets.

DIVISION DOMINANCE

Washington is 36-16 against the rest of the NL East. It's the best division record in the majors.

ROSTER MOVES

OF Michael A. Taylor was recalled from Triple-A Syracuse by the Nationals. RHP Lucas Giolito was optioned down.

ODUBEL ON THE MOVE

Phillies All-Star CF Odubel Herrera will likely play a corner outfield spot in winter ball. Manager Pete Mackanin has been impressed with Aaron Altherr in center and prospect Roman Quinn also plays there.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg threw a bullpen session one week after he was placed on the DL with elbow soreness. Strasburg is expected to return to the rotation when he's eligible.

UP NEXT

RHP Max Scherzer (14-7) starts for the Nationals against RHP Jerad Eickhoff (9-12) on Tuesday night. Scherzer is 6-1 against the Phillies in nine career starts. Eickhoff had 10 strikeouts in his only career start vs. Washington on Sept. 25, 2015.

RELATED: NATS MAKE TWO ROSTER MOVES