For so long the Washington Nationals have had one position at the top of their needs list: center field.
The search for their long-term answer there has taken plenty of turns but rarely settled. Until now, it seems. For now, anyway.
When the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approached last season, the Nationals were involved in a lot of talks for a long-term answer there. Denard Span was on their list of targets, there were rumors swirling about B.J. Upton. The list goes on.
But with six weeks to go until this year’s deadline, don’t expect a repeat.
There might be some intriguing candidates on the trade market at that position this season. Peter Bourjos, long a player Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has known and admired, has basically been benched in Anaheim with Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo solidifying the Angels outfield. Michael Bourn is heading into a free agent year. Span is putting together a nice season for the woebegone Twins.
But the Nationals, quite frankly, would have no where to put any of them.
As the Nationals size up their needs at the trade deadline, their first since 2005 in position to use it as one of their final opportunities to improve a contending ball club, center field is no longer one of them. And the biggest acquisitions they could make in the next two months could likely be the healthy returns of close Drew Storen (bone chip) and right fielder Jayson Werth (broken wrist).
The Nationals feel Bryce Harper can handle center field — and can handle it long enough until one of the top outfield prospects they already have in the organization is ready to assume it, knowing that might be two or three years down the road. That list includes names like Michael Taylor, Brian Goodwin and Destin Hood.
If they’re satisfied with Harper in center, Werth returns to right field and Michael Morse moves back to left, that would leave the Nationals with very little maneuvering room to put any mid-season acquisition. Steve Lombardozzi’s abilities both in the outfield as well as out of the leadoff spot also complicate things further.
Does this mean the Nationals will be out of the free agent center field sweepstakes this offseason? Not entirely.
Plenty of people in the industry still expect the Nationals to be players in that arena. Ken Rosenthal from FoxSports.com wrote Monday that he’s hearing the Nationals’ No. 1 target in free agency is likely to be Bourn (a Scott Boras client).
Adam LaRoche and the Nationals have a mutual $10 million option on his contract for 2013. If the Nationals decide to allow LaRoche to move on in free agency, the feeling is they’d be able to move Morse to first base and have room for another top-tier outfielder. Tyler Moore, of course, could also be in the mix for the every day first baseman’s job by then.
So the Nationals shouldn’t be entirely discounted from the center field market for 2013 but it might be surprising to see them spend in the neighborhood of the type of contract Adam Jones recently got from the Baltimore Orioles, or even in the $60 million neighborhood, if they truly believe they have the guys in the system already to fill that spot.
As for this year’s trade deadline, the Nationals figure to be in a unique position.
Rizzo has always said that the Nationals evaluate potential trades based on the big picture. And if they’re presented with a move that works well for them in the long- and short-term — and that might be with them as a seller, given their depth at certain positions like both starting and relief pitching — they won’t hesitate to explore it.