Despite the accruement of relief pitchers as they rework their bullpen, a common theme for the Nationals this offseason has been them missing out on marquee free agents. They show interest, they get close, but they end up falling short with contract offers and watch their targets sign away with other teams.
This has happened with Ben Zobrist, Darren O'Day and now Jason Heyward. And, if Mike Leake signs elsewhere, he will fall in the same category.
So, what to make of this trend? The Nationals, for one, are being active in free agency, just as they have in years past. And them losing out after being reported as finalists is nothing new either. That has happened with plenty of players from Mark Teixeira to Prince Fielder. It happens to many teams.
But let's look at the targets themselves and see what we can deduce. The O'Day one is obvious. They are looking for bullpen help and, at least for a little while, were keen on the biggest name out there. O'Day entered free agency after four excellent seasons in Baltimore, only to go back to the O's for a four-year deal. The Nationals ultimately would not meet the financial demands of the 33-year-old pitcher.
Getting that close to O'Day, however, shows how serious the Nats are in upgrading - or at least changing - the back-end of their bullpen. If O'Day were to have signed with Washington, he wouldn't have done so to pitch in the middle innings. That further backs their goal of trading Jonathan Papelbon and/or Drew Storen.
In the cases of Zobrist and Heyward, the Nationals are clearly looking for both outfield depth and a left-handed bat. Both players bat lefty and play outfield, though Zobrist also plays second base. Their interest in him, plus the trade of Yunel Escobar, could mean they are looking to upgrade at second, despite the fact Danny Espinosa is still on the roster.
The Leake news was the most concrete indication so far that the Nats are serious about making changes to their starting rotation. Currently that group includes Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark. But, as their pursuit of Leake further shows, they are not exactly content with the current crop.
Now that the Nats have in some ways shown their cards, how can they fulfill the objectives they have identified?
As for left-handed bats that play second base, they could turn to Daniel Murphy, Kelly Johnson or Stephen Drew, though Drew has really struggled over the last two years. Right-handed batters at the position who are free agents include Howie Kendrick and Sean Rodriguez.
If outfield depth is really what they are aiming for, the best left-handed or switch-hitting options remaining are Alex Gordon and Dexter Fowler (switch). A reunion with Denard Span would also solve that problem.
Johnny Cueto and Yovani Gallardo headline the available starting pitchers in free agency, but both will command large contracts, particularly Cueto. The Nats may be best off acquiring a new starter via trade as they did for Gio before the 2012 season and Doug Fister before 2014. As we have noted in recent weeks, Tyson Ross of the Padres could be a fit with two years remaining on his contract. Alex Cobb of the Rays is also under team control through 2017, though Tampa has given no indication they will trade him this winter.
Nationals fans may be disappointed in seeing their team fall short on several big name free agents this offseason. But a hidden benefit in the process is learning exactly what the Nats are looking to accomplish this winter.