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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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Nationals beat Braves, snap losing skid behind Stephen Strasburg's strong start

Nationals beat Braves, snap losing skid behind Stephen Strasburg's strong start

ATLANTA (AP) -- Stephen Strasburg struck out a season-high 11 and kept up his recent domination of the Atlanta Braves, leading Washington to a 3-2 win Sunday that stopped the Nationals' four-game losing streak.

Strasburg (5-1) allowed five hits in 7 2/3 innings, beating Atlanta for the second time this season and improving to 7-1 in his last nine starts against the Braves. He is 10-8 overall against Atlanta.

He reached double digits in strikeouts for the second time this season after fanning 10 Braves on April 20.

Strasburg faded in the eighth, when Dansby Swanson hit a two-run double. Koda Glover struck out Nick Markakis to end the inning and finished the six-hitter for his third save.

Daniel Murphy hit a second-inning homer off Jaime Garcia (1-3) and the Nationals added two unearned runs in the third.

Matt Adams was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts and hit into a ninth-inning double play in his debut for Atlanta, a day after he was acquired from St. Louis. Matt Kemp led off the ninth, and Adams hit a line drive that was caught by Ryan Zimmerman, who stepped on first base.

Garcia allowed three runs -- one earned -- and seven hits in eight innings with no walks.

Washington took a 3-0 lead in the third following fielding errors by Markakis in right and Garcia. Bryce Harper had a run-scoring single.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: 3B Anthony Rendon and C Matt Wieters were given days off from the starting lineup. Rendon entered at third base in the eighth.

Braves: RHP Kris Medlen allowed one hits in six scoreless innings Saturday in his first start for Class A Florida. He missed most of 2016 with shoulder problems after his second Tommy John surgery. "That would be a real nice piece to have," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. Medlen pitched for Kansas City in 2015-16 and his last season with Atlanta was in 2013, when he was 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Following an off day, RHP Jacob Turner (2-2) is expected to start when the Nationals will open a series against Seattle on Tuesday.

Braves: RHP Mike Foltynewicz (2-4) will take a 0-3 career record in three starts against Pittsburgh into Monday night's series opener against the Pirates.

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2017 MLB Power Rankings: As Bryce Harper goes, so do the Nationals

2017 MLB Power Rankings: As Bryce Harper goes, so do the Nationals

A week ago, the Nationals were looking unstoppable. Bryce Harper was hitting walkoff dingers left and right, there were multiple winning streaks, and the bullpen was only sorta bad. 

2017 MLB POWER RANKINGS

A week's worth of games later - against the Braves, Pirates and Phillies, no less - and the Nats don't look nearly as stainless. Harper's hitting under .200 since his Mother's Day walkoff, the team lost 5 of 6, and the bullpen turned back into a pumpkin. Because of that, there's a new team at the top of the Power Rankings this week. Who is it? To the rankings! 

30. MIAMI MARLINS

2017 Record: 15-28
Previous Ranking: 24
Last 10 Games: 2-8
Notable Performance: Dee Gordon (.318/.400/.364 last week)

Stanton hasn't homered in over two weeks, a stretch of 12 games. After going 2-8 over the last 10, including that weird Dodgers game, the Marlins have seen better weeks.  

29. SAN DIEGO PADRES

2017 Record: 16-30
Previous Ranking: 29
Last 10 Games: 3-7
Notable Performance: Brad Hand (.300/.500/.600 last week)

Wil Myers' underwhelming season continues. The outfielder is hitting .150 over the last week, and only .219 over the last month. The Padres best position player is only worth .6 bWAR, and that's 5th-best on the team.

28. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

2017 Record: 15-26
Previous Ranking: 23
Last 10 Games: 2-8
Notable Performance: Daniel Nava (.429/.429/.571 last week)

They ran into Texas at exactly the wrong time. Getting starts that are consistently like Aaron Nola's last one will be huge for his development this season. 

27. KANSAS CITY ROYALS

2017 Record: 18-25
Previous Ranking: 27
Last 10 Games: 6-4
Notable Performance: Lorenzo Cain (.087/.125/.087 last week)

They're starting to play better, but upcomming series with the Yankees and Indians aren't making life any easier for KC. Jason Vargas (?!) has been their most valuable player this year (2.0 bWAR). 

26. ATLANTA BRAVES

2017 Record: 18-23
Previous Ranking: 30
Last 10 Games: 7-3
Notable Performance: Matt Kemp (.375/.423/.708 last week)

Losing Freeman for three months because of some dumb unspoken beef is just a testament to how stupid unwritten baseball rules are. The silver lining to this year, though, is that the Braves are going to fleece some team for Matt Kemp in July. 

SEE THE REST OF THE RANKINGS HERE