The Washington Times - December 24, 2011, 03:43PM

Gio Gonzalez passed his physical Friday morning, making official the five-player swap that sent four of Washington’s best prospects to Oakland in exchange for the 26-year-old left-handed starter and minor league right-hander Rob Gilliam.

The addition of Gonzalez immediately changes the complexion of the Nationals rotation. Now, opponents know they’ll have to face at least one of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gonzalez in any three-game series, a fearsome 1-2-3 combination. It also solidifies that top three for the next four years at the least, along with John Lannan and Ross Detwiler as team-controlled assets for some time.

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As one evaluator put it to me Thursday: With the addition of Gonzalez and the way their pitching staff shakes out around the top three, the Nationals have a “serious chance.”

Even Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo acknowledged the team is pushing to win and win in the near future — with a team setup for the long haul.

“I feel good and I feel optimistic about where we’re at,” Rizzo said Friday night in a conference call with reporters. “We’re never satisfied. I always see places of need and improvement but, with that said, we like our ballclub and our goal is to be playing meaningful games at the end of the season, in September and beyond.” 

So the question on everyone’s minds is obvious: What happens now?

Where do the Nationals go from here now that they’ve secured a starting pitcher, look forward to the maturation and evolution of their young core position players and have collected an assortment of bench players in Mark DeRosa and Mike Cameron while expecting to call-up Bryce Harper at some point in 2012 — if not right out of spring training? Scott Boras’s doorstep seems to be the answer everyone’s expecting to hear.  

ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick tweeted Friday morning that executives around baseball keep waiting for Rizzo to “bail out” Boras on one of his free agents. That list includes Prince Fielder, Edwin Jackson, Johnny Damon, Carlos Pena and Ryan Madson.

The feeling, from at least one team source, is that chances of that happening are slim. The Nationals made their big move for this offseason and now they’ll fill in around what they’ve already built. 

Rizzo was asked several questions Friday night about the team’s remaining tasks this offseason and he answered them this way:

Asked point blank if Adam LaRoche is still his first baseman for 2012, Rizzo said: “That’s correct.”

Asked what was at the top of the offseason to-do list at this point now that a front-line starter had been secured, Rizzo said: “We’d like to do some subtle things. We’d like to improve our bench, we’d like to improve our depth in the minor leagues to help us, if need be, on the major league level.

“(Nationals manager Davey Johnson) and I are going to put our heads together and see exactly what he needs as far as bench strength to manage his game effectively. I think we’re going to be looking at all aspects and if something big that’s acquirable is something that helps our ballclub and fits for us in the long term, we’ll certainly look into something like that. We’re always looking. We’re always going to be aggressive and try to improve the ballclub — even though we think that we’re vastly improved over the last year and we still could get better.”

That does not sound like a man who’s ready to drop a $200 million-plus check into Fielder’s bank account.

The truth of the matter is this: If the Nationals are indeed involved, it wouldn’t be surprising if it was kept extremely hush-hush until the end. Rizzo and Boras have a very good working relationship (clearly) and have negotiated with one another on several occasions, but the way Boras often operates when he wants to talk directly to the money is to circumvent the GM and head right to the owner. If Boras convinces Ted Lerner that Fielder is someone he just has to have, there may not be anyone who knows about it until the deal is done.  

However, as it stands now, unless the asking price for Fielder drops — which it could given what appears to be a quiet market for him to this point — the Nationals aren’t likely to be heavily involved. Why? Well, aside from the obvious (they already have two first basemen in LaRoche and Michael Morse), there’s also the matter of the need to extend third baseman and Face of the Franchise Ryan Zimmerman in the near future.

Zimmerman will be a free agent after the 2013 season and he’s made it clear publicly that he’s willing to talk about an extension whenever the Nationals are ready — and he’d prefer sooner rather than later, of course. He has said several times he has no desire to go anywhere else and wants badly to be a part of a Nationals team that contends year-in and year-out. An extension for the third baseman would likely be shaped along the lines of the deals Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitizki and Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun who signed extensions worth $157.75 million and $145.5 million (including their current deals) to lock them up through 2020. With Jayson Werth making $126 million over the life of his contract, it’s easy to assume Zimmerman will make significantly more — and even more than that should he hit the free agent market as a 29-year-old in 2013.

That money has to come from somewhere. It may not be Ryan Zimmerman OR Prince Fielder, but the need and want to keep the third baseman around has to come into play in the decision-making process at some point.