NASHVILLE — The Nationals arrived for the Winter Meetings four days ago with plenty of uncertainty surrounding their bullpen, interest in adding a left-handed bat and questions about the potential for them to do something really dramatic.
They departed the Winter Meetings on Thursday morning with slightly less uncertainty surrounding their bullpen, the same level of interest in adding a left-handed bat and continued questions about the potential for them to do something really dramatic.
On the surface, it may appear like the Nationals accomplished very little at the Opryland Resort. They made no official transactions, aside from taking former first-round pick Zack Cox (a third baseman in the Marlins’ organization) in the Class AAA portion of the Rule 5 draft.
But they did come to terms with right-hander Yusmeiro Petit on a contract that includes a $2.5 million salary in 2016 and then a $3 million club option (with a $500,000 buyout) for 2017, a source familiar with the deal confirmed. That contract should be announced within the next few days, giving the team a new long reliever and spot starter who can fill Craig Stammen’s old role.
The Nationals also continue to work on a deal with reliever Shawn Kelley, though the source said those negotiations are not finalized. If the two sides can work it out, Kelley would join the bullpen as a right-handed middle man and possible set-up man, perhaps taking the role Aaron Barrett had before tearing his elbow ligament.
Combine those potential additions with last week’s signing of veteran lefty Oliver Perez, and the Nationals have made some significant strides toward rebuilding their relief corps.
The two biggest bullpen questions, of course, remain unresolved. The Nationals have been listening to offers for Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen but haven’t come close to dealing either right-hander, a source said. So much hinges on what happens with those two disgruntled relievers, and all options remain in play. Both could return in 2016, only one of the two could be retained or both could be gone. This remains general manager Mike Rizzo’s biggest — and most challenging — task of the offseason.
“I think it’s been consistent,” Rizzo said of the interest level in Papelbon and Storen. “There’s a market for relievers. As we’ve seen with the free agent signings, the reliever market is booming. There’s a lot of teams looking for relief pitching.”
In their search for another left-handed bat, the Nationals have come up empty so far. They were aggressive in pursuing Ben Zobrist, offering the prized free agent more than the $56 million he wound up taking from the Cubs according to a source familiar with the negotiation. They looked into Neil Walker before the Pirates dealt their second baseman to the Mets for left-hander Jon Niese. They could still find that bat elsewhere, whether in the form of another second baseman like Daniel Murphy, an outfielder like Gerardo Parra or someone else via trade.
“In a perfect world, the lefty bat is important, but we want to improve our club,” Rizzo said. “The balance in the lineup is an aspect, but it’s not something that’s the end all and be all. We’d like to be more balanced, but if we have a quality player that improves our lineup and improves the club, then we certainly are going to look at all avenues of it.”
As for a surprise, dramatic move … well, the fact Rizzo admitted making an offer for right-hander Mike Leake (who is projected to receive something in the realm of $80 million) provided a bit of a window into the Nationals’ thinking. They might not be serious about Leake, but it should be clear they’re open to adding another prominent starting pitcher to a rotation that doesn’t necessarily need one.
“It’s not a necessity for us right now, but we’re always in the market to improve the ballclub anyway we can,” Rizzo said. “If we have to strengthen a strength or try to refine a weakness, there’s different levels and different strategies going on at the same time.”
To use one of Rizzo’s favorite lines, the Nationals have a lot of irons in the fire. Who knows what will emerge out of all that, but if the general manager is true to his track record, the Hot Stove League won’t flame out simply because the Winter Meetings have come and gone.