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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, without their big guns, fall to Mets

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Nationals, without their big guns, fall to Mets

NEW YORK -- Travis d'Arnaud hit two home runs and the New York Mets ended a three-game skid, rallying past a watered-down lineup of Washington Nationals 7-6 on Friday night.

Washington manager Dusty Baker said he needed to "give my big boys much needed rest" with the playoffs nearing, and not a single regular started for the NL East champions. Star Daniel Murphy pinch hit in the eighth and flied out.

MORE NATS: RATHER HAVE THE CUBS, BREWERS, OR CARDINALS IN NLDS?

The Nationals begin the Division Series in exactly two weeks. If the current standings hold, they would host the World Series champion Chicago Cubs to open the best-of-five matchup.

Adam Lind hit a three-run homer for Washington. It was the Nationals' 203rd home run this season, matching the franchise record dating to 1969 when they were the Montreal Expos.

Howie Kendrick had an RBI double and prized prospect Victor Robles lined a two-run triple in the fifth that put Washington ahead 6-1.

Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley exited in the eighth inning because of an apparent injury. He' has struggled this season and missed more than two months because of back problems.

Nori Aoki had three hits for the Mets, including a go-ahead double in the sixth inning off Joe Blanton (2-4).

Chasen Bradford (2-0) pitched a scoreless inning for the win.

Jeurys Familia, the Mets' third pitcher in the ninth inning, came on to strike out Robles with runners on first and third for his fourth save -- his first since May 5. Familia, who missed three months after surgery to repair a blood clot, entered as part of a double switch, with Kevin Plawecki taking over at catcher for d'Arnaud.

D'Arnaud hit a solo homer in the second and connected for a tying, three-run drive in the fifth that finished starter Edwin Jackson. That gave d'Arnaud a career-best 15 homers and marked his second multihomer game, the other coming in April against Washington.

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Mets starter Robert Gsellman allowed six runs in five innings. He moved up a day to pitch in place of ace Jacob deGrom, who was moved back in the rotation until Sunday because of a stomach illness this week.

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Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

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Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

The regular season is winding down and there is no drama in the nation’s capital.

With a stranglehold on the National League East for the entire season, the Washington Nationals were the first team in baseball to earn a playoff spot and their division. Since June, the Nationals’ lead has been hovering around 20 games. Their record against the division is 44-26 with three NL East series forthcoming.

Beyond that, positioning has not been a factor in the National League either. It was a near forgone conclusion that the Nationals were going to earn the No. 2 seed in the NL side of the postseason. There was a slight chance last week that Washington could pass the Los Angeles Dodgers with them losing 16 of 17 games. Alas, the Dodgers took two out of three in their series, solidifying their No. 1 seed hopes.

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Dusty Baker then basically threw in the towel for that race. He spread out his rotation to six pitchers and gave his players consistent rest. Focusing on the postseason more than the playoff race, he does not appear to care about their positioning.

With that, the Nationals are all but guaranteed to finish second behind the Dodgers. Floating between four and six games back, there is no sense of urgency.

There is no worry about the team in third either. The Chicago Cubs, as of September 22, sit seven games behind the Nationals and are in the thick of a Divisional race.

Either way, even if the Nationals were to collapse and the winner of the National League Central was to rocket up to second, the Nationals will play against whoever wins the division in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 match-up.

The Central has actually been the Nationals Achilles heel this year. They finished with a 17-13 record vs. NL Central teams. It is not the whole division the Nationals have to worry about though, just the one that comes out.

Entering Friday’s action the Cubs are well on their way to winning the division, according to fangraphs.com. Below are the current odds to win the division:

Chicago Cubs                     97.8%
Milwaukee Brewers          0.9%
St. Louis Cardinals            1.3%

This is slightly misleading though, because the Central could completely flip before the postseason. The lead is 4.5 over the Milwaukee Brewers and 5.0 over the St. Louis Cardinals. However of their final 10 games, three are against the Brewers, four against the Cardinals, all seven on the road.

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In the five-game NLDS the Nationals will face one of these teams. Even if it is the defending World Series Champions, you have to like the Nationals’ odds.

CHICAGO CUBS PREVIEW

Current record: 85-67
2017 Record vs. Washington: 2-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Jon Lester (11-8), Jake Arrieta (14-9), John Lackey (11-11), Kyle Hendricks (7-5), Jose Quintana (6-3)
Top position players: Kris Bryant (.292 BA, 28 HRs, 69 RBIs), Anthony Rizzo (.278 BA, 32 HRs, 107 RBIs)

If these two teams were to meet up, it would be easily the best starting pitching match-up in the National League. Likely the Cubs would only go to four guys, maybe three if they get desperate. With Jake Arrieta on the mind, that would be a dicey move to start the postseason. They have not played to the level that the 2016 did a year ago, but a majority of the position players are still in place and can still put together a run.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS PREVIEW

Current record: 81-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Zach Davies (17-9), Chase Anderson (11-3), Brandon Woodruff (2-2), Brent Suter (3-2)
Top position players: Domingo Santana (.281 BA, 28 HRs, 80 RBIs), Travis Shaw (.274 BA, 30 HRs, 96 RBIs)

As one of the hottest teams in the first half of the season, the Brewers are only relying on their early success. Their team has quickly cooled off and their number two starter Jimmy Nelson is out the remainder of the season. The rest of the roster is shaky at best as they are trying to stay relevant in the postseason chase. If the Nationals are fully prepared for the playoffs there should be no worries if Milwaukee represents the Central.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS PREVIEW

Current record: 80-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-3
Last head-to-head postseason series: 2012; Cardinals won 3-2 in NLDS
Starting pitchers: Adam Wainwright (12-5), Carlos Martinez (12-11), Lance Lynn (11-7), Michael Wacha (12-8), Luke Weaver (7-1),
Top position players: Yadier Molina (.276 BA, 18 HRs, 82 RBIs), Tommy Pham (.311 BA, 21 HRs, 168 RBIs)

With both the Brewers and Cubs you know what you are getting, with the Cardinals it could be anything. The starting pitchers have a history of success, just not in 2017. Also how Wainwright comes back will be a huge factor in how the Central race will play out and how their odds in the postseason increase. With a mix of a young and aging line-up, the Cardinals can both win with the long ball and piece runs together by playing small ball. St. Louis is easily the most interesting team of the three and could be the scariest if the Wainwright comes back at 100%.

Both the Brewers and the Cardinals have to rely on each other to win the NL Central. They cannot do it on their individual series's alone.