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Nationals making a list, checking it twice for winter meetings

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2011

Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is an avid traveler. He rarely misses a road series when the Nationals are in season, and Rizzo has been racking up the frequent-flyer miles this offseason as well.

On the short list since the season ended, he's taken his act to St. Louis to visit Mark Buehrle, the Dominican Republic to scout Cuban outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Jorge Soler, and to the Arizona Fall League to check in on Bryce Harper and the Nationals' crop of prospects.

Sunday, he and the rest of the baseball world will descend on Dallas for the winter meetings — and Rizzo will arrive with a specific shopping list.

Could the Nationals surprise everyone and jump to the front of the line for one of the big-ticket free agents? Sure. No one pegged them for throwing down $126 million to land outfielder Jayson Werth last year, but they did. Anything is within the realm of possibility. Realistically, though, the Nationals want a starting pitcher and a center fielder and have a 'Help Wanted' sign hung above their bench.

So let's talk specifics:

LHP Mark Buehrle: Buehrle's the Nationals' guy. Rizzo spoke with his representation, Jeff Berry of CAA, at the general managers' meetings in Milwaukee a few weeks ago and followed with a visit to Buehrle's home just before Thanksgiving. Chances are they'll meet again next week in Dallas. He's the type of pitcher the Nationals are looking to add to their young stable. But Buehrle's also about half the league's first choice. With Japanese star Yu Darvish's availability undetermined and C.J. Wilson reportedly pricing himself out of a lot of interest, no fewer than 14 teams have expressed interest in Buehrle. Berry has been mum on the amount of dollars and years his client is seeking, but reported estimates put the 32-year-old in the $15 million per year range on a contract anywhere from three to five years.

RHP Roy Oswalt: If the Nationals can't succeed in luring Buehrle to Washington and still feel that Wilson is overpriced, Oswalt appears next on their list. The right-hander comes with health concerns, especially after struggling through a back injury for much of the 2011 season in Philadelphia. His agent, however, insists Oswalt is healthy and they're looking for a long-term deal. The Phillies declined to pick up Oswalt's $16 million option for 2012 and then declined to offer him salary arbitration, meaning the Type-A free agent won't cost the team that signs him a draft pick.

The market thins after that for what the Nationals are looking for though Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada could be a route they consider if he becomes available, along with Darvish, as could a lower-tier option such as Edwin Jackson.

CF Yoenis Cespedes: He's not a free agent yet, and there isn't a definitive estimate for when he will become one, but Cespedes is working to obtain residency in the Dominican Republic on the way to free agency. In the meantime, he has become the gem of the international market for position players. The 26-year-old outfielder is in great shape, a power hitter who set the Cuban record for home runs last year and is considered major league-ready by many. He's also held a private workout — for Rizzo and international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia in the Nats' case — or been scouted by almost every major league team and is expected to command more than $30 million. The Nationals have been searching for a bona fide center fielder for some time. Cespedes could be it, but they'll have to decide if he's worth the financial commitment.

CF B.J. Upton, Denard Span: The center field situation comes down to this: The Nationals think they have depth at pitcher, catcher and even infield where they could make a trade for a center fielder. In fact, Rizzo has said that he feels it's the most logical route for them with the free agent market thin there — even more so after Grady Sizemore re-signed with the Indians. The in-house options are there. Werth can play the position, especially with the anticipated call-up of Bryce Harper during the year.

1B Prince Fielder: Ah yes, Fielder. One of the two big-ticket items on this year's market, along with Albert Pujols. Fielder is a Scott Boras client — of which the Nationals have five on their 40-man roster already — and has been linked to the Nationals throughout the offseason. With Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse already on their roster, Rizzo knows he'd have to make a "companion move" if he were to add Fielder. He's also likely to command close to $180 million — a figure that would make it seem incredibly difficult for the Nationals to also extend third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in the same price range.

Bench: Laynce Nix, Mark DeRosa, Rick Ankiel, Jerry Hairston Jr.: The main focus for re-shaping the Nationals' bench is offense. Washington was among the worst in the major leagues in 2011 in pinch hitting, and manager Davey Johnson often lamented the lack of power threats. Still, the Nationals are open to bringing back Nix, talking with his agent as recently as last weekend, and could look Ankiel's way for a fourth outfielder as well. Chris Marrero's torn hamstring gives them a need for another right-handed bat off the bench, which is where all-purpose utility men such as DeRosa or a reunion with Hairston could come into play, but none outside of Nix truly fits the "hairy-chested power threat" criterion Johnson has asked for in the past.

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