- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009

Whether they feel they’re ready to contend in 2010 or not - and the sense among many club officials is that they’re not - the Washington Nationals have identified three clear-cut needs heading into the offseason.

By the time his team assembles in Viera, Fla., in mid-February, general manager Mike Rizzo wants to have acquired a veteran starting pitcher, a defensively gifted middle infielder and a reliable reliever who can set up closer Mike MacDougal.

Rizzo will have some money at his disposal. Seven players who were on the Nationals’ payroll when this season began, making a combined $27 million, will be off the books next year. And though increased salaries for Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman will take up some of that, Washington still can go out and spend almost $20 million on free agents without increasing the club’s payroll.

Since it’s never too early to start looking ahead to next year - especially with this franchise - here’s a preliminary peek at the upcoming free agent market with some likely targets for the Nationals.

STARTING PITCHERS

Top tier: Tim Hudson, John Lackey, Cliff Lee, John Smoltz, Brandon Webb

Second tier: Randy Wolf, Joel Pineiro, Jason Marquis, Rich Harden, Jarrod Washburn, Jon Garland, Braden Looper, Brad Penny, Brett Myers, Kevin Millwood

Bargain basement: Brandon Backe, Erik Bedard, Doug Davis, Mike Hampton, Livan Hernandez, Vicente Padilla, Carl Pavano, Jason Schmidt

(Note: Hudson, Lee, Garland, Looper, Millwood, Webb and Padilla all have options that could be picked up by their current clubs.)

The Nationals’ plan: The Nationals may dip their feet into the top-tier pool just to see what a guy like Hudson or Lackey might cost, but they’re probably more likely to make a strong pursuit of those second-tier starters. Rizzo isn’t necessarily in search of an ace; he’s already got a future No. 1 in Stephen Strasburg. He’s in search of a durable veteran who can be penciled in for 12 wins and 200 innings while also serving as a mentor for the young members of the current staff. Wolf and Garland, in particular, seem to fit that description.

Don’t be surprised if the Nationals also pick up one of those bargain-basement starters on a one-year or minor league deal and ask him to fill out the back end of the rotation. Hernandez, who has looked decent since returning to the District last month, is a strong bet to come back again.

MIDDLE INFIELDERS

Top tier: Orlando Hudson, Placido Polanco, Orlando Cabrera, Mark DeRosa

Second tier: Adam Everett, Alex Gonzalez, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Felipe Lopez

Bargain basement: Khalil Greene

(Note: Gonzalez, Wilson and Sanchez have options that could be picked up by their current clubs.)

The Nationals’ plan: Rizzo said he wants to acquire a defensively gifted middle infielder, either a shortstop or a second baseman. Offense at that position would be a plus but not required. While Hudson certainly is the best of the bunch and drew strong interest from Washington last winter, the All-Star second baseman is going to have his pick of the litter and is going to have a large price tag.

So the second-tier options may be more appealing to the Nationals, especially Everett and Gonzalez. Neither does much of anything at the plate. But both are exceptional defensive shortstops, and that is something this club could desperately use.

RELIEVERS

Top tier: Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, Troy Percival, Fernando Rodney, Jose Valverde

Second tier: Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, John Grabow, Joe Beimel, Kevin Gregg, LaTroy Hawkins, Brandon Lyon

Bargain basement: Danys Baez, Chad Bradford, Kiko Calero, Matt Herges, Duaner Sanchez, Jamie Walker

The Nationals’ plan: Rizzo doesn’t sound inclined to spend big money on a closer, not with his team at this stage of its development. MacDougal has done well since taking the job in June, and Drew Storen is waiting in the wings to take over down the road.

So look for the Nationals to focus on a solid setup man, someone who can make 70 appearances and get the ball to MacDougal. Someone like Beimel, who signed with Washington last spring for $2 million. Since they already have a strong young lefty in Sean Burnett, the Nationals might be more inclined to go after a right-hander like Gregg, Lyon or Bradford.

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