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Nats in an advantageous position

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Nats in an advantageous position

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nationals did very little on Day One of the Winter Meetings. They signed Zach Duke to a one-year, big-league contract. They signed Bill Bray to a one-year, minor-league contract.

But it's still probably fair to say the Nats emerged victorious at the Opryland Resort for one major reason: The market for Adam LaRoche continued to shrink while the pool of available starting pitchers remained deep.

Both were positive developments for Mike Rizzo, who has the ability over the next few days and weeks to really position his team as World Series favorites entering 2013.

Rizzo described his approach to these meetings as "keeping a low profile," but perhaps the better phrase would be "waiting to pounce." That applies both to LaRoche and his pursuit of a fifth starter to bolster what is already one of the game's best rotations.

In each instance, Rizzo is dealing from a position of strength and doesn't feel like he needs to cater to the demands of others.

Start with LaRoche, who entered the offseason as the top available first baseman and figured to have a good number of options on the open market. But as became clearer and clearer today, the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner simply doesn't have as many attractive alternatives to D.C. as he initially hoped.

The Red Sox's morning signing of Mike Napoli took them out of the mix. By late afternoon, word out of Texas was that the Rangers aren't all that interested.

Thus eliminates two American League destinations, each one attractive in its own right for LaRoche, who in addition to earning the last big payday of his career wants to give himself a good chance to win the first championship of his career.

Who does that leave in the sweepstakes? Other than the Nationals, LaRoche's only other choices could be the Orioles and Mariners. Baltimore's interest level remains a question mark, with league sources doubting owner Peter Angelos would offer LaRoche the three-year deal he seeks. Seattle might meet those demands, but a West Coast franchise with little hope of winning in the near future can't be all that appealing for the 33-year-old first baseman.

In other words, LaRoche may have no realistic choice but to take the Nationals' best offer, even if Rizzo holds firm to his two-year proposal.

Not that either side seems intent on striking an accord over the next few days.

"I don't think there's any urgency to set a deadline or a specific time period that we have to get it done," Rizzo said. "But needless to say, this decision is going to impact some of the other decisions that we make. So sooner rather than later is our preference. But we're not going to pressure Adam into anything that he's not comfortable doing."

Obviously, Michael Morse's status hinges on LaRoche's status, though Rizzo insisted he doesn't have to wait for the LaRoche situation to resolve itself before making a decision to trade Morse.

"If the right offer for any players came up, we would certainly act on it," the GM said. "Because we have such depth at that position, it reinforces the fact that if we get a deal that we like for anybody -- not specifying Michael Morse, but for anybody -- we would do it."

That depth includes Tyler Moore, and Rizzo said he'd be comfortable entering next season with the second-year slugger as his everyday first baseman if need be.

As for a potential Morse trade, Rizzo said everything has been precipitated by other clubs contacting him, not the other way around.

"He's drawn interest, yeah," Rizzo said. "We've fielded calls for him. We have not made one call about him. We've fielded a lot of calls, and you can see the reason why. He's a middle-of-the-lineup hitter that puts up big numbers and hits for average and for power."

Again, Rizzo is in the advantageous position here, not forced into doing something but free to wait and strike when it makes the most sense.

The same applies to his pursuit of another starting pitcher. With four quality young arms (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler) already locked up for at least the next three years, there's no pressure for the Nationals to acquire another big-name guy.

But they certainly can if they want. And they do.

"The most impactful guy that we can get is always what we're trying to do," Rizzo said, using one of his favorite (albeit made up) words.

That could be Zack Greinke, the biggest prize of the winter who is expected to command a nine-figure deal from some of the richest clubs in the sport (including the Dodgers and Rangers).

It could be James Shields, a legitimate front-line starter for the perennially contending Rays who most definitely is available in a trade for whatever club is willing to give up the most young talent.

Or it could be one of the 10 or so other available starters, any one of which would help bolster an already deep rotation.

"We've got a big list," Rizzo said. "As we work through the process, we'll focus in on a smaller group and ultimately focus in on who our primary target is, and have alternative plans if we don't get the primary target."

Again, advantage Nats.

They couldn't reside in a much better position than this, owners of baseball's best record one year ago, with nearly their entire roster already locked up for the next few years, free to pursue just about anyone they want.

That's a far cry from the position in which this franchise used to reside. When the Winter Meetings were last in Nashville five years ago, the Nationals' biggest move was the acquisition of Elijah Dukes.

The situation they were in at the time demanded they take a flyer on a player who most likely wouldn't work out.

Not anymore. The Nationals are good. They're going to continue to be good. And there isn't a prominent free agent or trade target who wouldn't want to come play in Washington.

Who'd have thunk it?

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

Mike Rizzo is wading through the offseason with two separate to-do lists. One covers everything Bryce Harper and the other three distinct gaps in his roster: catcher, second base and the third spot in the starting rotation.

The Harper list will ultimately be decided by ownership. Rizzo wants him back. It’s up to the Lerner family how much they are willing to spend on a return. They were the decision-makers on Max Scherzer’s contract. They will again be so with Harper, weighing many of the same things he will, such as legacy, winning and off-the-field futures.

The other list is more mundane. However, it may be more important. The Nationals have multiple quality solutions if Harper signs elsewhere. And no matter where he ends up, they needed to work on the secondary list. Monday, the Nationals reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with catcher Kurt Suzuki, making headway there. So, let’s first take a look at second base before checking on the third rotation spot later in the week:

The in-house option: Split time between Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick

Rizzo told reporters at the general manager meetings he felt good about using the above combination to take care of second base next season. Kendrick would, theoretically, provide a steady bat. Difo would, theoretically, provide athleticism the lineup needs and solid defense at a spot where it did not exist the last three seasons with Daniel Murphy.

The platoon line appears clean: Kendrick would be a right-handed option, Difo, though a switch-hitter, a left-handed choice since he is better against right-handed pitching. Difo could also carry more of the load early in the season assuming the Nationals slow play Kendrick in his age-36 season when coming back from an Achilles tendon tear. Nationals medical staff informed Kendrick he would be “back to normal” if he followed the post-surgery protocols.

“And that’s very refreshing to hear something like that, especially if you have an injury of this caliber,” Kendrick told me in September. “Years ago, it might not have been the same. But now with the advancement of technology and the way they do surgery I feel really confident I’ll be back to normal and playing. Just the process, I’ve got to stick with the process and trust it. “Mentally, I really don’t have a problem with it. I know it just takes time because I’ve had injuries before. So, it’s like, all right, just follow the protocol and I’ll be where I need to be when it’s time.”

Kendrick is doing most of his rehabilitation work at Banner Health in Tempe, Arizona. The facility is just down the road from his house. It also allows him to work with physical therapist Keith Kocher, who Kendrick knows from his time with the Los Angeles Angels. Kocher also knows Nationals director of athletic training Paul Lessard and athletic trainer Greg Barajas. Barajas previously worked for Kocher.

Difo, entering his age-27 season, is nearing the end of the line with the organization. He had just a .649 OPS last season in 408 at-bats. There’s little to indicate an offensive uptick is forthcoming. Both he and Kendrick, who will become a free agent, are likely gone after this season.

Should the Nationals choose this platoon path, they would have to live with Difo’s lack of offense and occasional in-field brain freezes. Davey Martinez likes to hit him ninth when he plays, bumping the pitcher in front of him. He would like Difo to calm his swing and have a more measured approach at the plate.

Relying on Kendrick following the injury is a gamble. But, this pair is an option if the organization believes everything else is in place. A team .723 OPS at the position would qualify for middle of the National League pack last season. Kendrick and Difo combine for a .703 career OPS.

The free agent choices: Old, but reliable

Two of the six Gold Glove finalists at second base in 2018 are on the market. Jed Lowrie, who reinvented his offensive effectiveness during the last two seasons, and DJ LeMahieu, who won his third Gold Glove this year.

LeMahieu is the top option for the Nationals if they want to make a hefty investment. He’s 30 years old, a two-time All-Star, the league’s best defender at the position and the 2016 National League batting champion (hello, Coors Field: .391 at home and .303 on the road that season).

What’s interesting is his career OPS-plus, which is adjusted for a hitter’s park, is well below that of Kendrick. Kendrick has a 107 career OPS-plus, LeMahieu 92. And Kendrick didn’t earn the gap only earlier in his career. He put together a 118 OPS-plus in 2017 when being used properly by both the Phillies and Nationals in a reduced role. However, LeMahieu would be a significant fielding upgrade for a team that needs to be better at cutting 90 feet here, 90 feet there from the opposition.

Lowrie is going into his age-35 season. He delivered two of the top seasons of his career in the last two years. Both earned a 120 OPS-plus. He’s shown more power and more patience at the plate. The question is how much to pay him for those last two seasons, the usual paying-for-past-performance risk. The significant dips in Lowrie’s average and slugging percentage following the All-Star break last season can be viewed as red flags.

Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier and Murphy are also among the lot available. None are getting younger.

The trade options: Limited.

To reiterate: Limited. First, the Nationals’ assets have dwindled in recent years. Second, Carter Kieboom could be ready to play second in 2019 if he is still in the organization. Third, there’s no reason to burn an asset to fill this spot now.

A recommended path

Signing Suzuki will help patch catcher. Another move is likely coming there. Perhaps a second low-cost veteran. Remember, the Nationals allotted roughly $11 million to the position last season. Suzuki will cost half that, which leaves room for further investment without increasing the year-over-year payroll in regards to the Competitive Balance Tax. The salary cost stays the same, the tax threshold rises, you find savings at that spot.

Resolving the catcher position, at least in part, delivers second base as one of the few remaining uncertain spots on the roster. Which in turn provides the Nationals wiggle room when making a decision this offseason. So, the recommendation is to stick and wait. Shoring up this spot could be a move for July or even August at a much lower cost. In the interim, the Difo-Kendrick platoon is surrounded by enough current talent to hover near league average without being a significant hole.

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Reports: Nationals sign catcher Kurt Suzuki

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Reports: Nationals sign catcher Kurt Suzuki

The Nationals took a step Monday morning toward fixing one of their largest ailments.

They signed veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to a two-year deal, according to multiple reports. Suzuki gives the Nationals at least a partial solution to a spot which spent most of the season as a distinct problem. Nationals catchers finished 14th in the National League in OPS last season.

The question around Suzuki is not if he will be an improvement -- it’s hard not to be -- but if this signals the Nationals have again given up on trying to acquire Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto. Everything indicates the Marlins’ asking price to be extremely high, think Juan Soto or Victor Robles to start, and this signing ostensibly withdraws the Nationals from the Realmuto chase.

Washington could pair Suzuki with an in-house defensive option like Spencer Kieboom. The problem with that approach is the likelihood of injury. Suzuki is a 35-year-old catcher enter his 13th season. Even if he’s not injured, he’s unlikely to play more than 90 games. If he is injured, that leaves the Nationals with the same troubling situation of last season when Kieboom and Pedro Severino were splitting time when Matt Wieters was out.

At the least, Suzuki will be an improvement. His 2.1 WAR from last season severely outpaces the -0.1 WAR compiled in 2018 by Kieboom, Wieters and Severino. Though, he is not the “front-line catcher” Rizzo said at the general manager meetings the team would pursue.

Another thing to note here: It’s just Nov. 19 and Rizzo has done a lot of chipping away at the Nationals’ problems without spending big money. Reliever Kyle Barraclough was acquired for international slot money the team was unlikely to use anyway. Reliever Trevor Rosenthal is on an incentive-laden deal to likely be the setup man with a baseline price lower than that of Ryan Madson last season. And Suzuki’s last deal was for one year and $3.5 million. Expect this deal to be in that neighborhood. That’s significant filler early and at a low cost.

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