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If Nats sign Zobrist, Escobar could be traded

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If Nats sign Zobrist, Escobar could be traded

NASHVILLE — The Ben Zobrist Sweepstakes appears to be approaching the finish line at last, with the highly coveted veteran scheduled to meet with Nationals officials today at the Winter Meetings and then make a decision where he'll sign sometime shortly after that.

And as of last night, all indications were that Zobrist's decision has come down to the Nats and their chief division rival, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the proceedings.

Zobrist reportedly had narrowed his search to three finalists over the last week: the Nationals, Mets and Giants. But San Francisco general manager Bobby Evans suggested to reporters Monday that the versatile 34-year-old prefers to primarily play second base. The Giants were interested in him primarily as an outfielder, likely taking themselves out of the mix and leaving Zobrist to decide between the Nationals and Mets.

The Nats would want Zobrist to man second base on a regular basis while also serving as a backup to Jayson Werth in left field and (on rare occasions) Bryce Harper in right field.

"We have interest in him," GM Mike Rizzo said yesterday. "He fits for us at several positions. But second base is a position that I think he likes best, and he fits for us best at second base. But with that said, this guy can play all over the field and a guy that has great versatility."

Rizzo spoke glowingly about Zobrist, who is expected to command a 4-year contract that won't expire until he is 39 but remains one of the sport's most fundamentally sound, all-around players.

"Zobrist is a good fit for about 30 teams in the big leagues," Rizzo said. "He's, first of all, a really good player. He's good on both sides of the ball, can really do everything on the baseball field. He's a good baserunner. He can hit for a little power. He's a good defensive player at several positions."

Should they be able to land Zobrist, the Nationals would face a potential logjam in their infield. With Anthony Rendon slated to return to third base on a full-time basis in 2016 and Zobrist presumably taking over at second base, the club would have to choose one player among the trio of Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa and top prospect Trea Turner to play shortstop.

Rizzo wouldn't commit to any of the three yesterday, suggesting only that he's not going to be in the market for another shortstop.

"I have a comfort level that if today was Opening Day, we have a shortstop on the roster and feel good about it," he said. "Several of them. That's why we have spring training. We'll figure out where every player fits. But we're strong and deep up the middle, and that's a good place to be."

Escobar would be a logical candidate to be traded, and still could be even if the Nationals don't sign Zobrist. The veteran infielder is coming off a career year in which he hit .314 and is slated to earn a relatively affordable $7 million in 2016. The Nats could sell high on Escobar and still feel comfortable with their infield depth.

"He's a versatile player that's a good hitter and a really good, big-league player," Rizzo said. "Yeah, there's been several teams interested in him."

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Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

While Nationals fans are understandably disappointed Anthony Rendon is no longer a member of the Nationals, they can rest easy knowing he didn't see himself signing the the NL rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers never made an offer to Rendon, per The Athletic, after "sensing that he didn’t want to play in Los Angeles." He instead signed with the Los Angeles Angels, inking a seven-year, $245 million deal to play for the California team that receives considerably less media attention than its in-state rival.

Now entrenched in the AL on the other side of the country, Rendon won't face the Nationals very often nor will his team's play have any effect on Washington's playoff chances from year to year. It was a best-case scenario for fans after it became likely he wouldn't be returning to Washington.

After being spurned by Rendon and losing out on top free-agent pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the Dodgers are still looking to make their first big move of the offseason.

There's still plenty of time for them to make a move, but Los Angeles can expect little sympathy from Nationals fans that Rendon won't be suiting up in Dodger blue for the next seven years.

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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one; Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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