The Washington Times - November 30, 2011, 11:52AM

The Winter Meetings are officially less than five days away but the hot stove speculation and rumor mill is already clicking its way into high gear. As the Nationals remain focused on their top two offseason targets — a starting pitcher and a center fielder — Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has now made an in-person visit to a top target in each category.

Last week, Rizzo was in St. Louis with a Nationals group that went to visit pitcher Mark Buehrle at his home. This week, Rizzo is in the Dominican Republic, a source said, scouting Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes who is expected to establish residency in the DR and hit the free agent market shortly. The timetable for his arrival on the free agent market is a bit muddled but most estimates have it happening before the first of the year. 


Cespedes, who exploded onto the scene earlier this month with one of the most unique recruiting videos out there, is considered by many to be a major league ready player who could slot into a lineup in short order. There have been reports that various teams are skeptical that he’d be able to make the jump from playing in Cuba to the major leagues without any minor league time but it doesn’t appear many believe he’s all that far away. 

If the Nationals view him as the answer to their center field issue it’s going to cost them. Just as with Buehrle, there are several teams interested in Cespedes’ services and reports of what he will command on the open market range anywhere from $30 million to $50 million. It would be a huge sum of money for the Nationals to dole out to an international free agent, especially given their history in this area and the fact that the last big-money Cuban free agent they locked up was Yunesky Maya — who got more than $6 million in 2010 and has thus far pitched in 15 major league games with lackluster results. 

– Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa was honored Wednesday with a selection to the TOPPS 2011 Major League Rookie All-Star team. He joins fellow National League East rookie Craig Kimbrel as the only selections from the division despite the fact that the BBWAA Rookie of the Year voting included five NL East players (adding Braves’ Freddie Freeman, Phillies’ Vance Worley and Nationals’ Wilson Ramos). 

Espinosa is considered by many to be on the verge of becoming a bona-fide star with his ability to hit for power and his stellar defense at second base. His batting average lagged in 2011, though, and he went through a significant second-half slump that he’ll be looking to avoid in his sophomore season. 

Here’s the rest of the TOPPS team:

1B: Mark Trumbo, Angels
2B: Danny Espinosa, Nationals
SS: Dee Gordon, Dodgers
3B: Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
OF: Desmond Jennings, Rays
OF: Josh Reddick, Red Sox
OF: Ben Revere, Twins
C: J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays
SP: Jeremy Hellickson, Rays
RP: Craig Kimbrel, Braves