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Plenty of storylines for Nats in Nashville

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Plenty of storylines for Nats in Nashville

The baseball world converges today on Nashville, with executives, managers, coaches, trainers and more from every franchise, a phalanx of agents, minor-league officials, regular folks seeking work in the sport and -- of course -- media members taking over the gargantuan Opryland Resort and Convention Center for the next five days.

The annual Winter Meetings are quite a spectacle, so many people affiliated with the game of baseball hunkered down in one location, and they're quite often the scene of some major news. (Anyone remember the Albert Pujols extravaganza last year in Dallas?)

Slowly but surely over the years, the Nationals have become a more significant force at the meetings, their biggest splash coming two Decembers ago at Disney World when they shocked the industry by signing Jayson Werth to a $126 million contract.

Now that they're coming off a 98-win season their first-ever playoff appearance, the Nationals won't sneak up on anyone at the meetings. Plenty of observers will be watching Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson and Co. closely over these next few days, waiting to see if there's another big move in the works.

With that in mind, here are some of the most important Nationals storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Music City...

THE SEARCH FOR A FIFTH STARTER
Though we've been saying for more than a month now that the Nationals' No. 1 priority this winter involved Adam LaRoche, there's not a lot of reason to believe that issue will be resolved at the Winter Meetings. LaRoche, by all indications, is willing to take his time before deciding whether to return to D.C. or sign elsewhere, and he's just now learning what other clubs are willing to offer.

So the biggest thing the Nationals could do this week is finalize their starting rotation, adding one more arm to the already-talented quartet of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler.

There are no shortage of veteran starters on the market, with Zack Greinke topping everybody's list. Rizzo loves the right-hander and nearly pulled off a major trade (and $100 million contract extension) for him two years ago before Greinke nixed the deal because he didn't think the Nationals were ready to win. Obviously, they're ready to win now, though there's reason to question whether Rizzo is as willing to fork over that much dough to Greinke this time around, considering all the other money he's already committed to his roster over the next several years.

If they want to aim lower, the Nationals still have plenty of viable choices. Dan Haren, Ryan Dempster, Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Brandon McCarthy, Joe Saunders and Shaun Marcum are all free agents and potential additions to the rotation.

Or, Rizzo could seek to find a pitcher via...

A SIGNIFICANT TRADE
We already know he's willing to take this route to acquire a player he covets. He did it last winter with Gio Gonzalez. And he just did it last week with Denard Span.

What pitcher might be available this winter? Keep an eye on the Rays, who are forever looking to keep payroll down and are willing to listen to offers for more than one member of their rotation. And there are two really big fish in Tampa who could be shopped around this week: David Price and James Shields.

Price, of course, is the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. Shields is no slouch, a 200-inning-a-year workhorse who struck out 448 batters over the last two seasons.

Either would carry a steep price. But Rizzo has pieces at his disposal, whether in the form of Michael Morse (who may be out of a job if LaRoche re-signs), Danny Espinosa (who could be replaced at second base by Steve Lombardozzi) or perhaps even top prospect Anthony Rendon.

Would such a mega-deal ever actually go down? Who knows. But given his history, would you put it past Rizzo to do something along those lines in order to acquire another big-name pitcher?

The Nationals don't just need another starter, though. They desperately need...

BULLPEN HELP
With Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez and Zach Duke all free agents and Tom Gorzelanny now on the open market after he was non-tendered Friday night, the Nationals desperately need a left-hander or two for their bullpen.

They have the ability to re-sign any of those pitchers, and perhaps they will, though Burnett's price tag is hefty. He's seeking a three-year deal similar to the one the Giants gave Jeremy Affeldt to stay in San Francisco, and the Nats may not be willing to make that kind of commitment to anyone who lives in the up-and-down world of a major-league bullpen.

Gonzalez and Duke would be much more affordable, though neither possesses the recent track record of success and durability that Burnett has shown.

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Dusty Baker on Bryce Harper's return and a potential playoff platoon at first base

Dusty Baker on Bryce Harper's return and a potential playoff platoon at first base

Though Dusty Baker isn’t a doctor, he apparently isn’t averse to using an old school method or two to diagnose his players’ injuries.

So when Bryce Harper, ailing with a jammed left thumb, recently told his manager he was ready to return to the lineup, Baker responded by giving it a little pinch.

“He said 'Ow, what'd you do that for?' and I said 'Okay, I got my answer,'" the Nationals’ manager said with a laugh.

Baker must be comfortable with how Harper is feeling lately, as the 23-year-old right fielder is back in the lineup after four days off.

"He might have been ready to go [on Thursday],” Baker said. “So if a guy tells me he's ready, if I have a luxury, I like to give them one more day off. I just noticed that a lot of guys say they're ready and you bring them back and they're really not ready. I would prefer that you be champing at the bit to get back [instead] of a person to just say that you're ready.

Prior to the injury, the reigning NL MVP had hits in five of his previous seven games. So with three games left, the Nats are hoping the reigning Harper can get back in a groove before the postseason begins next week.

Zimmerman a platoon bat? It’s a question that seemed unfathomable on Opening Day, but the veteran first baseman’s 2016 inconsistency-filled odyssey has some wondering if Baker might consider other options come October. The answer, for now, is no.  

“That hasn’t crossed my mind,” the skipper said.

Clint Robinson is starting at first in Friday night’s game against the Miami Marlins, but the move doesn’t appear to be a sign of things to come. Baker said the decision was merely to keep Zimmerman healthy and afford Robinson some at-bats while he can get them. Still, for an offense will be without Wilson Ramos (and a fully-healthy Daniel Murphy), the lineup will need a boost where it can get it.

“I don’t really believe in platoon, platoon," Baker said. "There’s certain guys that I feel that Clint may have a better chance of being successful against. But that’s not a platoon for me.”

In other words, Baker is staunchly in Zimmerman’s corner. And slowly but surely, the 31-year-old has been rewarding his manager's faith. Zimmerman has hits in six out of his last nine games, including a trio of two-hit efforts. It might be too late to salvage his career-worst .219 average, but the Nats still believe the one-time face of the franchise will show up when it counts the most. 

"I just keep in mind with Zim that ‘hey, man, you can be the man for a long period of time like we know that you’ve done,’" Baker said. "We’ve seen him do it before. So we need Zim. We need him badly.”

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Nationals Playoff Schedule 2016: MLB Postseason Dates and TV channel

Nationals Playoff Schedule 2016: MLB Postseason Dates and TV channel

The 2016 MLB Postseason begins the first week in October.

The N.L. East Division champion Washington Nationals face the N.L. West Division champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the N.L. Divisional Series. While the specific times and game locations have yet to be decided, here is what we know thus far.

2016 MLB N.L. postseason schedule:

When is the American League Wild Card Game?

Tuesday, Oct. 4.: Time TBD. TV Channel: TBS

When is the National League Wild Card Game?

Wednesday, Oct. 5: Time: TBD. TV Channel: TBS

 

When is the American League and National Lague Divisional Series? (Best of five series)

*  If necessary

Thursday, Oct. 6:

- ALDS A, Game 1. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 2. TV Channel: TBS

Friday, Oct. 7

- ALDS A, Game 2. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 2. TV Channel: TBS

- NLDS A, Game 1. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network
- NLDS B, Game 1. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network

Saturday, Oct. 8

- NLDS A, Game 2. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network
- NLDS B, Game 2. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network

Sunday, Oct. 9

- ALDS A, Game 3. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 3. TV Channel: TBS

Monday, Oct. 10

- ALDS A, Game 4*. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 4*. TV Channel: TBS

- NLDS A, Game 3. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network
- NLDS B, Game 3. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network

Tuesday, Oct. 11

- NLDS A, Game 4*. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
- NLDS B, Game 4*. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1

Wednesday, Oct. 12

- ALDS A, Game 5*. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 5*. TV Channel: TBS

Thursday, Oct. 13

- NLDS A, Game 5*. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
- NLDS B, Game 5*. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1

 

When is the ALCS? When is the NLCS? (Best of 7. Times TBD)

Friday, Oct. 14

- ALCS Game 1. TV Channel: TBS

Saturday, Oct. 15

- ALCS Game 2. TV Channel: TBS

- NLCS Game 1. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

Sunday, Oct. 16

- NLCS Game 2. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

Monday, Oct. 17

- ALCS Game 3. TV Channel: TBS

Tuesday, Oct. 18

- NLCS Game 3. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

- ALCS Game 4. TV Channel: TBS

Wednesday, Oct. 19

- NLCS Game 4. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

- ALCS Game 5*. TV Channel: TBS

Thursday, Oct. 20

NLCS Game 5*. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

Friday, Oct. 21

- ALCS Game 6*. TV Channel: TBS

Saturday, Oct. 22

- NLCS Game 6*. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

- ALCS Game 7*. TV Channel: TBS

Sunday, Oct. 23

- NLCS Game 7*. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

 

When is the 2016 World Series? (Best of 7. Times TBD)

Tuesday, Oct. 25

- Game 1: NL at AL. TV Channel: Fox

Wednesday, Oct. 26

- Game 2: NL at AL. TV Channel: Fox

Friday, Oct. 28

- Game 3: AL at NL. TV Channel: Fox

Saturday, Oct. 29

- Game 4: AL at NL. TV Channel: Fox

Sunday, Oct. 30

- Game 5*: AL at NL. TV Channel: Fox

Tuesday, Nov. 1

- Game 6*: NL at AL. TV Channel: Fox

Wednesday, Nov. 2

- Game 7*: NL at AL. TV Channel: Fox