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Nats ready to fire up Hot Stove

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Nats ready to fire up Hot Stove

Technically speaking, the baseball offseason began the moment the San Francisco Giants wrapped up a four-game whitewashing of the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. That was 29 days ago.

In reality, the offseason has barely registered a blip on anyone's radar screen to this point. Yes, free agency kicked off five days after the Fall Classic ended. But do you know how many of the sport's 175 free agents have signed contracts so far? Twenty-one. That's all.

Baseball, as everyone knows, likes to take its time. This is the rare sport, of course, that doesn't feature a clock. So it's only appropriate that it always takes a while for the offseason to kick into high gear.

That time, though, has finally come. Thanksgiving has come and gone, the annual Winter Meetings begin one week from today and the Hot Stove League is ready at last to ignite.

You'll start reading more and more rumors in the days ahead, which players are in discussions with which clubs. You may see a handful of free agents sign deals before anyone arrives in Nashville on Sunday. You'll certainly see a smorgasbord of activity once those Winter Meetings commence at the massive Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

And you'll probably hear the Nationals mentioned as much as almost any franchise in the game, a clear departure from previous offseasons when they existed mostly on the periphery of all the action.

What do the Nationals need? It's been well-documented since mid-October, but let's run through it all again, in order of greatest need...

1. ADAM LAROCHE
So much of the Nats' offseason hinges upon the veteran first baseman. If he returns to D.C., the lineup is set. If he goes elsewhere, the dominoes start falling all over the place, with Michael Morse likely shifting to first base and the club then deciding if it wants to simply give left field to Tyler Moore or pursue a free agent center fielder like Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton and shift Bryce Harper to left field (or Harper to right field and Jayson Werth to left field).

Very little has come to light about the LaRoche market, but this much is certain: The Nationals would happily give their 2012 MVP two guaranteed years at a healthy sum. The question is whether they would be willing to give him three guaranteed years, and if not, whether another club (ie. the Red Sox, Orioles or Rangers) would then be able to swoop him away.

Look for more clarity in this dilemma over the next week or two, with the market perhaps defining itself better to the point LaRoche can finally make his decision and the Nationals can finally proceed with their larger offseason plan.

2. A NO. 5 STARTER
If ever there was a good winter to be in need of a reliable, veteran starter, this is it. There are no shortage of available options via free agency, only a question of how high the Nationals want to set their sets and how much money they're willing to spend to bolster what may already be the majors' best rotation.

At the top end of the spectrum are Zack Greinke and Dan Haren. In the middle of the pack are Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster and Brandon McCarthy. Further down the list are Joe Saunders, Shaun Marcum and Carl Pavano.

And then, of course, there's John Lannan (still under the Nationals' control though now out of minor-league options) and Christian Garcia (who may be converted to a starter next spring).

If the Nationals are dead-set on acquiring one of the big names, they may try to be aggressive and get something done in short order. If they're content to pick from among the rest of the litter, they could take their sweet time and find themselves a better bargain once the dust has settled.

3. A LEFT-HANDED RELIEVER (OR TWO)
Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez are both free agents. Either (or both) could re-sign, though Burnett may command a three-year commitment along the lines of the contract the Giants gave Jeremy Affeldt to stay in San Francisco through 2015.

Who else is out there? There aren't many other quality lefties on the open market. Veterans Randy Choate and J.P. Howell are probably the best of the bunch, which could put some added pressure on the Nationals to at least re-sign Burnett or Gonzalez.

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Harper Among 4 Nats' Starters Out Vs. Padres Sunday

Harper Among 4 Nats' Starters Out Vs. Padres Sunday

National League home run leader Bryce Harper is among four starters out of the lineup for the Washington Nationals in their series finale against the San Diego Padres on Sunday.

Daniel Murphy, Jayson Werth and Matt Wieters also did not start for the Nationals, who open a nine-game, 10-day road trip Monday afternoon in San Francisco.

Murphy missed the previous two games due to illness, Chris Speier said Saturday. Speier, serving as acting manager with Dusty Baker away this weekend to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in California, did not meet with the media before Sunday's game.

RELATED: Nationals' Joe Ross to Start Against Team That Drafted Him

Harper is batting .337 with 15 home runs and 41 RBIs.

Washington won the first two matchups in the three-game series.

Joe Ross (2-0, 5.32) faces fellow right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (4-4, 5.74) on Sunday.

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Nationals' Joe Ross to start against team that drafted him

Nationals' Joe Ross to start against team that drafted him

WASHINGTON -- On Dec. 19, 2014, the San Diego Padres traded pitcher Joe Ross and a player to be named later -- it would be Trea Turner -- to the Washington Nationals in a three-team deal that included the Tampa Bay Rays.

Since that trade, the Padres have posted a record of 160-215 while the Nationals are 208-166 after they won 3-0 Saturday as Stephen Strasburg struck out a career-high 15 batters in seven innings and the Washington staff fanned 17.

As a reminder of what could have been, Ross (2-0, 5.32) makes the start Sunday against San Diego right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (4-4, 5.74) in the finale of the three-game series at Nationals Park.

First-place Washington is 30-18 while last-place San Diego is 18-33.

Ross was drafted by the Padres in the first round out of his California high school in 2011. Ross is 2-0 in his career against San Diego with a 2.25 ERA in two starts. Last year, he went six innings and allowed six hits and three earned runs in a win against the Padres.

"I was not around Joe at all," said Andy Green, in his second year as the San Diego manager. "We saw him last year; he is a sinkerballer."

The Padres did acquire All-Star first baseman Wil Myers in the trade.

The Nationals have scored a record 62 runs in the four starts made this year by Ross, more than any other pitcher has received in his first four starts of a season. That included a 23-5 victory at home April 30 against the New York Mets and a 10-1 win Tuesday against the Seattle Mariners.

Ross, who broke into the majors with the Nationals in 2015, was in the rotation last season and made 19 starts before going on the disabled list. He was in line to be the No. 5 starter, but began the season at Triple-A Syracuse.

Chacin is 3-2 in six starts against Washington and has a 3.09 ERA. He has made three career starts at Nationals Park and is 1-1 with a 0.45 ERA while allowing only one run in 20 innings.

The Nationals played their second game in a row Saturday without second baseman Daniel Murphy, who was ill.

Nationals bench coach Chris Speier, filling in for manager Dusty Baker, said before the game that Murphy was ill. Murphy entered the day hitting .316 with nine homers and 33 RBIs.

"He's available. This is Dusty's theory: Usually when somebody comes in and says, 'I'm ready,' then he usually gives him one more day. But he's available," Speier told reporters before the game.

Murphy entered Saturday seventh in the National League in hits with 56, just ahead of teammate Bryce Harper (55). Murphy was also among the league leaders in multi-hit games and road batting average.

Washington shortstop Turner, drafted by the Padres in the first round out of North Carolina State, had two hits, including a homer, Friday and was 1-for-4 Saturday.

Another hot hitter for Washington is center fielder Michael A. Taylor, who hit a homer for the second day in a row Saturday and has four homers in his last 14 games.

"I'm looking for my pitch and staying in my zone," Taylor said. "I'm not trying to do too much."

MORE NATIONALS: Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres