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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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Bryce Harper knows why he didn't play well, but he won't specify why

Bryce Harper knows why he didn't play well, but he won't specify why

Bryce Harper struggled by his standards in 2016 and he says he know why it happened last year. While it was rumored last season that he was playing through injuries, Harper never really missed significant time, nor did he really say that his injuries were the reason for his disappointing numbers. 

Speaking with the media today at spring training, Harper hinted at his injuries from last season as he said he was just trying to stay in the lineup every day.  

Although Harper's statistics dropped off dramatically from his MVP season in 2015, his numbers weren't entirely awful last year. He still hit 24 homers, drove in 86 runs and he had an .814 OPS. 

With a full offseason to heal up, Harper will be a prime bounce-back candidate as he looks to help the Nationals win their third NL East title in the last four years. 

Related: Sorry D.C. sports fans, Bryce Harper is a Dallas Cowboys fan

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Nationals' Max Scherzer says he may not be ready for season opener

Nationals' Max Scherzer says he may not be ready for season opener

The Nationals aren't certain to have ace Max Scherzer ready to pitch for Opening Day. Scherzer, 32, was unable to compete in the World Baseball Classic this summer due to a stress fracture in his right ring finger. 

When he spoke to the media today at the first bullpen session of spring training, he said that the fracture has healed but the symptoms continue. 

Scherzer also said he'd just started throwing again this week. Manager Dusty Baker confimed that the Nationals don't know whether Scherzer will be ready to start the season. 

Any time a team's star pitcher suffers an unusual hand injury, it's cause for concern for the club and fans. 

Scherzer won the NL Cy Young Award last season and posted a 20-7 record as a starter. He also led the MLB with 284 strikeouts. 

Scherzer is an especially vital part of the Nationals rotation considering the injury history of Stephen Strasburg, who landed on the DL twice last season, once with soreness in the elbow that needed Tommy John surgery in 2010. 

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