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Big names on Nats' potential wish list

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Big names on Nats' potential wish list

While most of the sporting public spent the weekend watching football and perfecting the art of changing channels the moment yet another incessant campaign ad overtook their TV screens, baseball's free agency period officially opened for business.

You most likely didn't hear a whole lot about it, because as anyone who follows baseball knows, no free agents actually sign the moment free agency begins. This isn't the NFL, and Ted Lerner didn't have his private jet gassed up and ready to hit the skies at 12:01 a.m. Saturday in pursuit of the Nationals' top target.

No, baseball operates at a slower, more calculated pace than other sports on the field, and the same holds true off the field over the winter. Players want to test the market and see just how many teams are willing to pay how much for their services. And general managers want to wait and see just how things play out around them and not overpay in a fruitless effort to pounce on a guy before he has a chance to talk to anyone else.

Truth be told, the Hot Stove League won't really kick into high gear for several more weeks, not until the Winter Meetings (Dec. 3-6 in Nashville) draws closer. But any good GM has already put together his wish list and knows what he's looking for well before the holiday shopping season arrives, and Mike Rizzo is no different. The Nationals GM was already putting together his free agency board before his team was eliminated from the postseason.

Rizzo doesn't reveal his list publicly, but it's not too difficult to speculate what names likely appear on it. With the Nationals' offseason needs -- a No. 5 starter, a lefty reliever, potentially a center fielder -- no secret, let's take a look at some of the free agents Rizzo is most likely targeting this winter...

RHP ZACK GREINKE
Greinke might well be the biggest prize on the market, one whose contract could easily surpass the $100 million threshold. Are the pitching-rich Nationals really going to spend that kind of money on another starter? Though there are reasons to believe they won't, the possibility shouldn't be discounted for one simple reason: Rizzo really likes Greinke. He made every attempt to acquire the right-hander via trade prior to the 2011 season, offering the Royals a package that would have featured several players off a list that included Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa and Drew Storen. Greinke nixed the whole possibility, saying he wanted to pitch for a team that had a chance to win right then, and wound up in Milwaukee. Given the current state of the Nationals, you have to believe the 29-year-old feels differently about this organization now than he did two winters ago. It still may cost far more than the Nationals are willing to spend, but if the price was right, Rizzo wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger on a move that would give his team unquestionably the best rotation in baseball.

CF MICHAEL BOURN
This is a name that has been linked to the Nationals for quite a while, going back at least to July 31, 2011, when Rizzo sought to pry him away from Houston at the trade deadline. The Nats have long been searching for a classic, leadoff-hitting center fielder, and Bourn perfectly fits the mold. But the need to acquire such a player may not be nearly as great now as it was 15 months ago. Bryce Harper certainly appears capable of playing center field every day in 2013 (and perhaps beyond). Brian Goodwin (currently tearing up the Arizona Fall League) could be ready to take over that position in 2014. And if they re-sign Adam LaRoche and choose not to trade Michael Morse, the Nationals won't have any openings in their outfield to begin with. Given the kind of contract agent Scott Boras is going to seek for the 30-year-old Bourn -- five years -- this connection appears less and less plausible.

RHP KYLE LOHSE
A veteran right-hander with a decent track record of durability coming off a fantastic season with a playoff participant? That sounds exactly like what the Nationals want in a No. 5 starter. Trouble is, Lohse is coming off the best season of his career at age 34 and his agent (Boras, again) is going to want to parlay that into as many years as possible. The Nationals are less inclined to make a long-term investment in another starter ... unless that starter is viewed as a true cornerstone arm like Greinke.

RHP ANIBAL SANCHEZ
He's made at least 31 starts, thrown at least 195 innings and posted a sub-4.00 ERA each of the last three seasons. That's an ideal No. 5 starter who could be had much cheaper than Lohse. The Nationals saw plenty of Sanchez at his absolute best against them when he pitched for the Marlins -- he's 8-0 with a 1.97 ERA in 19 career starts against them -- so you've got to believe they have a favorable impression of him.

RHP DAN HAREN
It was a wild weekend for Haren, who at one point appeared to be headed to the Cubs via a trade but ultimately was allowed by the Angels to become a free agent. The 32-year-old is everything you'd want in a free agent starter: durable enough to make 30 starts for eight straight seasons, dominant enough to post a .565 winning percentage and a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 4-to-1. The only red flag with Haren -- the only one -- is his back, which acted up some this season and probably contributed to his fastball velocity dropping all the way down to 88 mph. It would be a bit of a gamble, but a healthy Haren is as good as just about any pitcher in the game.

CF B.J. UPTON
Here's another name who has been linked to the Nationals for what feels like ages. Rizzo inquired several times about trading for Upton, but the Rays' asking price was always too high. Now he's available via free agency. Again, though, the Nationals must decide whether the 28-year-old Virginia native who still hasn't realized his true potential is worth the price ... and whether he's a significant upgrade over whoever off their current roster would have to go to make room for him.

RHP HIROKI KURODA
Kuroda may simply accept the Yankees' $13.3 million qualifying offer and return for a second season in the Bronx. Or he may want to return to Los Angeles, where his big-league career began. But if there's any chance of convincing the 37-year-old to come to D.C., Rizzo might want to try it. Kuroda is a highly reliable veteran whose performance didn't drop at all after moving from spacious Dodger Stadium to cozy Yankee Stadium. And he won't require a long-term deal, perhaps willing to sign for only one year (though at a hefty price). At those terms, he would seem a really good fit for the Nationals.

LHP JEREMY AFFELDT
The Nationals would love to re-sign Sean Burnett. But if they can't, they're going to be in the market for another left-handed reliever, and Affeldt is the only other quality one out there. The 33-year-old was fantastic for the Giants, both during the regular season and postseason, and he'd certainly be a valuable piece to the Nats' bullpen. But given the lack of good lefty relievers on the market this winter, neither Affeldt nor Burnett will come cheap.

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Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch

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Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch

WASHINGTON -- Most baseball managers try to operate in monochromatic fashion. They see one goal each day, and it only rests in those 24 hours. Some -- like Davey Martinez -- claim they don’t look at the standings in June. His standard message is to “win today” then move to tomorrow.

Human nature often runs interference on compartmentalization. It even crept up on Martinez on Sunday morning when in the midst of an answer about Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner playing daily. 

“For me, this is a big week,” Martinez said. “We have a chance to make up some ground here. I want these guys readily available to play.”

He’s right. The claim of significance is valid for once in mid-June, not a concept drummed up by overzealous television promos or interminable Internet space. 

The Nationals have seven games in seven days against two teams near the top of the division. Damaged Philadelphia arrives Monday. The Phillies’ bullpen is hurting and ineffective. Bryce Harper could miss the All-Star Game for just the second time in his career. Philadelphia is 6-8 in June. Meanwhile, Atlanta is rolling along. Its lineup remains deep, the pitching functional and Dallas Keuchel set to make his debut here in D.C. next weekend. The Braves hold a 2 ½-game lead in the not-so-great National League East. 

“Not thinking too big picture,” Adam Eaton said. “But knowing we have an in-division rivalry, we’ve got to win those games. It’s important. We’re trying to chase at this point. Not to put too much emphasis on it, but we need to play some really competitive baseball. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves these next four games. Play good baseball and not beat ourselves. If we play the brand of baseball we know how to play, and play clean, we have a good chance.”

Washington is five games under .500. Days are clicking off the calendar. Departing along with them are opportunities to chop at an 8 1/2-game deficit in the division. Following this week, only seven games against Philadelphia remain. However, 13 with Atlanta remain on the schedule, including seven in 10 days in September. The question is if those will matter. Sink this week and they won’t. Pull off a deficit-halving six of seven and everything changes. 

This week’s ramifications will first be felt on the phone lines in a month. The non-waiver trade deadline arrives July 31. Drag back to a double-digit deficit this week and plunk down the “for sale” sign. Rocket through the week and perhaps reinforcements will be found.

Monday brings a dreaded series opener. The Nationals are 6-17 in the first games of series this season. No one knows why. It doesn’t make sense. But, here they are, incapable of winning a first game and constantly playing from behind.

Patrick Corbin will be on the mound attempting to counter the trend. He, like the team when a new opponent shows up, has been in arrears the last three games. Corbin’s ERA dipped to 2.85 following a 116-pitch shutout of Miami on May 25. He’s been bludgeoned since. His ERA is up to 4.11, he will start twice this week, and the Nationals need him to right his ills.

Friday, Corbin threw a bullpen session focused on his line to the plate. Pitching coach Paul Menhart describes what they are trying to accomplish to get Corbin back to the version he was earlier this season:

“His lines and his east-west motion have made it very difficult for him to get the ball to where he wants it to be,” Menhart said. “He needs to be more direct to the plate and have more of a north-south rotation with his upper body and being more stable lower-half wise will allow him to do that and have his deception and hide the ball better and keep that tunnel.”

Corbin agreed. He doesn’t watch much video to cure ruts. He also doesn’t want too much information. The team’s analytics trackers have informed him his arm slot remains in a good place. He thinks his body is still in a running at a high level, dismissing any correlation between his struggles and the workload against Miami. He’s also going through the most common element of reduced success: trying not to chew on it too much.

“I think when I’m away from the field, you think about it more,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington. “You’re frustrated about it a little bit -- what the heck is going on? But when you get here, you just try to work, try to do things to get better. That’s how I approach it. I’m just looking forward to my next start on Monday going out there and trying to get back to how I know I can pitch.”

Philadelphia arrives after being thumped in Atlanta on Sunday, 15-1. Washington had the opposite day in a 15-5 win. Monday night starts a reckoning of sorts for both. The Nationals will send out their three high-end starters during the four games. Philadelphia is trying to right itself and not let the Braves get out of touch at the top of the division. So, even for the one-day-at-a-time crew, the coming seven carry significant weight, and they’re finally admitting it.

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Nationals call up Adrian Sanchez, place Kyle Barraclough on 10-day injured list

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Nationals call up Adrian Sanchez, place Kyle Barraclough on 10-day injured list

WASHINGTON -- Manager Davey Martinez wasn’t sure postgame Saturday what’s wrong with reliever Kyle Barraclough.

The right-hander’s velocity is down, his slider flat and too true, his results poor. Barraclough left the mound Saturday at dusk with a 6.39 ERA. He’s allowed seven home runs in 25 ⅓ innings this season. Little he has tried has worked. And his time on the team may be short.

Utility infielder Adrian Sanchez will join the team Sunday. Sanchez’s departure from Double-A Harrisburg was reported Saturday night by Mick Reinhard, who covers the Senators, and noted Sanchez’s early removal from the game.

Barraclough will be the one leaving to make room for Sanchez on the roster, the Nationals placing him on the 10-day injured list with radial nerve irritation Sunday. Barraclough could be sent on an extended rehabilitation in the minor leagues, as the Nationals did with Trevor Rosenthal. At a minimum, Washington goes from an eight-man bullpen to a five-man bench, finally delivering Martinez more versatility at the plate and in the field.

Barraclough and left-hander Tony Sipp were rarely used in the last three weeks. A week passed between appearances for Barraclough from the end of May to the start of June. Sipp pitched Sunday for just the fifth time since May 24.

Removing Barraclough from the roster is another layer of indictment for the Nationals' offseason bullpen plan. They acquired Barraclough via trade with Miami for international slot money. He was supposed to pitch the seventh inning on a regular basis, Rosenthal the eighth and Sean Doolittle the ninth. That lineup has been disastrous outside of Doolittle, compromising the entire season.

Rosenthal’s travails are well-documented. He pitched again Saturday, walked the first batter on four pitches, walked the second batter, then allowing a single to load the bases with no outs. He eventually allowed just a run. His ERA is 19.50 following the outing. It’s the first time this season Rosenthal’s ERA is under 20.00.

While trying to fix Rosenthal, and trying to hang on with Barraclough, the Nationals have turned to Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey to handle the seventh and eighth innings ahead of Doolittle. Few would have predicted that combination before the season began. Despite the relative concern, no one would have predicted the Nationals’ bullpen to be among the worst in the league for much of the season, but has turned out to be just that.

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