Marlins' spree won't alter Nats' course

Marlins' spree won't alter Nats' course
December 7, 2011, 1:47 pm
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DALLAS -- Ponder this for a moment: Two days into the Winter Meetings, the New York Yankees have been virtually invisible around the Anatole Hotel, barely registering on the awareness meter. Meanwhile, the Miami Marlins are the absolute center of attention, making news by the hour and leaving packs of reporters to trail owner Jeffrey Loria through the lobby like he's the pied piper.

Welcome to the bizarro Winter Meetings.

The Marlins were at it again last night, trying to lock up a 10-year deal with Albert Pujols worth a reported 220 million. The Cardinals were trying their darndest to hang in the race and retain the sport's best player. And supposedly a "mystery team" had emerged as another last-minute suitor for Pujols (though no one could confirm who that team was after the Angels and Cubs insisted it was neither of them).

Watching all this unfold from afar were the Nationals, who are not involved in the Pujols sweepstakes but obviously have some interest in the outcome of this Hot Stove drama. If the slugger winds up in Miami -- joining newly signed shortstop Jose Reyes and closer Heath Bell -- Washington suddenly has another powerhouse rival to contend with in the NL East.

Between the Marlins' offseason spending spree, the Phillies' continued reign as five-time division champs and the Braves' ever-present position near the top of the standings, the Nationals could be facing a daunting challenge in their attempt to reach contender status in 2012.

But don't for a moment believe Loria's doling out of hundreds of millions of dollars in the last week is going to result in a change of philosophies inside the Nationals' front office.

General manager Mike Rizzo was adamant yesterday that he'll stick with his plan for roster-building, no matter what his division rivals are doing down in South Beach.

"They've gotten better," Rizzo said. "They've been aggressive. They've got a good, intelligent front office over there. But we have to stay on track. We have to do what we're going to do. We can't knee-jerk and react to what a team in our division is doing, other than we always have the outlook of improving and trying to better ourselves to compete."

It should be noted that the Marlins (who finished last in the NL East this season at 72-90) hardly boast a flawless roster. There are injury questions on their pitching staff, starting with ace Josh Johnson, and Hanley Ramirez may or may not be willing to move to third base to make room for Reyes.

But if the Nationals think they're going to have an easy time challenging for either the division title or a wild-card berth, they're sorely mistaken.

"It's a tough division, it really is," Rizzo said. "And it's getting tougher by the minute, it seems. We have to stay our course and be focused on what we need to do. We can't be 'keeping up with the Joneses,' if you will. We need to worry about our own business and improve ourselves. Like we've said for a long time, we need to stay focused and keep our plan on track and keep always in sight what our vision is long-term. ...

"It's a tough division, but we like where we're at. We think we're improving. We think we're going to be very, very competitive in a very competitive division. And we're going to do it controlled and with our focus in mind and stay on our plan."