- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 6, 2011

DALLAS — Everywhere Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria went Tuesday at the Hilton Anatole hotel, he was trailed by a burgeoning contingent of reporters.

Closer Heath Bell and shortstop Jose Reyes already are on board with the suddenly-spending Marlins, but even they appeared to be minor acquisitions in comparison to Tuesday’s news: Miami is going after Albert Pujols with a 10-year offer for a reported $220 million.

Pujols stole the show — or at least the rumor mill — on Day 2 of the winter meetings, and while the Marlins pressed his representation for a decision the Washington Nationals stuck to their focus. Already members of one of the toughest divisions in baseball, this offseason has done nothing but make their task of reaching the playoffs for the first time that much tougher.

“We have to do what we’re going to do,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said when asked about the Marlins’ recent moves. “We can’t knee-jerk and react to what a team in our division is doing — other than that we always have the outlook of improving and trying to better ourselves to compete.

“It’s a tough division, it really is, and it’s getting tougher by the minute it seems.”

The Nationals, Rizzo said, can’t be concerned with “keeping up with the Joneses. We need to worry about our own business and improve ourselves.”

While Rizzo spent much of the day working toward the team’s two main goals — acquiring a starting pitcher and a center fielder — nothing was imminent by mid-afternoon.

Left-hander Mark Buehrle, who also has been pursued by the Marlins, whittled his options down to five teams. According to a source familiar with the decision, the Nationals are one of those teams. While Rizzo hadn’t heard from Buehrle’s camp by the time he met with reporters, it seemed an unsurprising development given the “connection” Rizzo said he felt with Buehrle during a visit to his home in St. Louis before Thanksgiving.

“I went in there and really gave him a presentation of what we’re all about,” Rizzo said. “I thought at the beginning there was a lot of interest [from Buehrle’s side] and I thought when we left there was a great interest in the Washington Nationals.”

Rizzo also has been given the sense that Buehrle, who reportedly is seeking a four-year deal with a no-trade clause, would like to make a decision soon.

So as the Nationals await an answer, while exploring backup options such as right-hander Roy Oswalt and testing the trade market, they’ve kept one eye on their closest competitors. While the Marlins continue to add, the Phillies haven’t been quiet either, bringing in closer Jonathan Papelbon and luring outfielder Laynce Nix from the Nationals.

“I was hoping [the division] would stand pat,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said Monday. “Some people going out there and trying to make a big splash. I like it. I think the American League East and National League East are the two strongest divisions in baseball. I like going up against the best. It makes it more fun when you win.”

None of the spending has changed the Nationals‘ plans, though.

“We’ve talked about it for a long time,” Rizzo said. “The Phillies are at the top of the mountain in our division. They’re the team that we shoot for, and they seem to keep rolling on and keep getting better. It’s a tough division, but we like where we’re at. We think we’re improving. We think we’re going to be very, very competitive in a very competitive division and we’re going to do it controlled, with our focus in mind and stay on our plan.”

NOTES:The Nationals met with a few more teams Tuesday in their search for a trade partner to acquire a center fielder, and their interest in Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton was brought to the forefront again. While Rizzo seemed positive about some of the trade discussions, he conceded that “I don’t think anything has changed on that front,” when asked about Upton.

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