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?

Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

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Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

Though Dusty Baker had already made the call earlier in the week to sit Anthony Rendon for Saturday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, his third baseman's recent torrid stretch at the plate nearly gave the Nats' skipper second thoughts. 

"I hate to give a guy a day off when they're getting hits and starting to look good," Baker said before Saturday's game. 

Still, he stayed true to his word, giving Rendon the day off and tapping Stephen Drew to take over at the hot corner. 

"I told him [earlier] he'd be out Saturday. I said 'Give me all you got until your day off on Saturday,'" the manager said. "And he did." 

Rendon's hot streak has been a much-needed sigh of relief for the offense, as his previous struggles were reaching the point where Nats fans might have wondered if he'd ever reclaim his 2014 form. That guy —the then 24-year-old who finished fifth in National League MVP voting and was once nicknamed "Tony Two-bags" — had been missing for the last season-plus as he battled either injury or inconsistency. 

But since Rendon was dropped to sixth in the batting order, the almost 26-year-old has slowly started to resemble what he was two seasons ago. In the last 10 games, he's raised his average from .237 to .262 thanks to six multi-hit efforts that included four doubles, a home run and a triple. Baker noted that Rendon had been making great contact all along, and part of his breakout is simply getting those hits to drop. 

"He's kinda been our hard-luck guy," Baker said. 

Rendon had played all 49 of Washington's games prior to Saturday, prompting Baker to describe the day off as "much needed." And when he returns, the Nats have to hope he can continue to be a presence in a lineup that desperately needs someone other than Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy to produce consistently. 

"He's looking good," Baker said. "He's looking real good."

Nats tap Gonzalez as they hope to rebound vs. Cardinals

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Nats tap Gonzalez as they hope to rebound vs. Cardinals

Nats (29-20) vs. Cardinals (25-24) at Nationals Park

The Nationals are looking to bounce back a day after dropping Friday night's game to the Cardinals —their first loss to the Red Birds all season. After Max Scherzer's uneven outing, Washington will send lefty Gio Gonzalez to the mound to face a St. Louis offense that has had trouble with southpaws. The Cards have a slashline of .240/.322/.390 against left-handed pitchers on the season, so it will be up to Gonzalez to keep that trend going against an otherwise hot-hitting lineup. It could help that he has his personal catcher in Jose Lobaton back in the lineup after Wilson Ramos held those duties in Monday's 7-1 loss to the New York Mets. 

Another wrinkle in Saturday's lineup is that Anthony Rendon will have the night off, a decision he made earlier in the week despite the third baseman's recent hot streak. In Rendon's absence, Stephen Drew will take over at the hot corner.

Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter will return to St.Louis' lineup after going on paternity leave for the first two games of this series. 

First pitch: 7:15 p.m.
TV: FOX
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, XM 183
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Cardinals - Adam Wainwright

NATS

CF Ben Revere 

LF Jayson Werth 

RF Bryce Harper 

2B Daniel Murphy 

1B Ryan Zimmerman 

3B Stephen Drew 

SS Danny Espinosa 

C Jose Lobaton 

LHP Gio Gonzalez 

CARDINALS

1B Matt Carpenter 

SS Aledmys Diaz 

LF Matt Holiday 

RF Stephen Piscotty 

CF Randal Grichuk 

C Yadier Molina 

2B Jedd Gyroko 

3B Greg Garcia 

RHP Adam Wainwright

 

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NL East: Mets trade for first baseman to help with Duda's absence

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NL East: Mets trade for first baseman to help with Duda's absence

The New York Mets have acquired some help at first base by bringing in 10-year MLB veteran James Loney in a trade with the San Diego Padres. The return has not been reported yet.

Loney himself hinted at the news on Twitter before ESPN confirmed the story. What a time to be alive.

Loney, 32, played the previous three seasons for the Tampa Bay Rays. He has yet to appear in the big leagues this season after signing a free agent deal with San Diego in April.

The former first round pick is a solid hitter with a .285 lifetime average and has always been known for his defense. Last season he hit .280 with four homers and 32 RBI in 104 games for the Rays.

Duda is currently on the 15-day disabled list with a stress fracture in his back. He could be out for a long time, so Loney at least gives the Mets some insurance behind Eric Campbell, who is filling in at first but is hitting just .182 this season.