When the clock struck 12:01 Thursday morning, Major League Baseball's free agency period officially — if somewhat unceremoniously — began. The Nationals are expected to be players this offseason, though their list of needs isn't long.
In its estimation, Washington already is close to contention; a center fielder and a starting pitcher away, perhaps, from becoming the team manager Davey Johnson expects to compete for the National League pennant next year.
The Nationals are looking for complementary pieces for a team that finished this past season 80-81 and on a 14-4 tear. If recent history is any indication, they're not afraid to spend some money. General manager Mike Rizzo declined to offer the team's payroll flexibility, but it's fair to say he'll be allowed to increase it from the $68.3 million they checked in at on Opening Day in 2011.
So where might their free agent trek take them? Here's a look at some of the potential free agents who could be on the Nationals' radar:
Center fielders: The market is so thin that before an oft-injured Grady Sizemore was made a free agent earlier this week, Coco Crisp may have been the most intriguing name on this list. Both, in fact, are options for the Nationals. Rizzo has made no secret that he'd like to acquire a leadoff-type center fielder - which, when healthy, Sizemore is. It's important to remember that the Nationals could likely be adding Bryce Harper to their outfield mix at some point this season (if not the start) and can shift Jayson Werth to center field as a contingency plan, so they may be in a position to take a risk on someone like Sizemore before they trade prospects for their previous targets, such as Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton or Minnesota's Denard Span.
Starting pitchers: Before examining the market, don't forget that the Nationals are expecting to open 2012 with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann atop the rotation, followed by John Lannan and, conceivably, at least one of Ross Detwiler or Tommy Milone. Their first task when it comes to free agent starting pitchers appears to be one of their own: right-hander Chien-Ming Wang. But Washington also is expected to look elsewhere and has been linked often to Texas left-hander C.J. Wilson - who's expected to command at least $80 million. Another pitcher of interest is Japanese power righty Yu Darvish, who the Nationals scouted multiple times this season and Rizzo has seen throw. They are well-aware of Darvish's talent, but the questions of whether he will be made available by his Japanese team and if he'll be worth both a posting fee (paid to his current team) and a hefty contract remain. The less-than-stellar major league track record of the Japanese superstars provides a caution as well.
After that, the Nationals could target any of a host of second-tier pitchers such as St. Louis' Edwin Jackson, the Chicago White Sox' Mark Buehrle — who has mentioned interest in a switch to the National League — or even Philadelphia's Roy Oswalt if they feel the injury-prone veteran will be worth somewhere near the $9 million option the Phillies declined.
Bench upgrades: The Nationals' bench was a source of discontent for much of Johnson's three-month tenure in 2011. A believer that it should be stocked with, in his own words, "big, hairy-chested" power threats, Johnson's pinch-hitters did not perform up to par in 2011. Pinch-hitters combined for a paltry .186 average and just five extra-base hits (two home runs), though they did compile 30 walks. They could retain the likes of Laynce Nix, Jonny Gomes or Rick Ankiel, but none of those would be considered an upgrade. There are some within the organization who feel Roger Bernadina is a lock to be the team's fourth outfielder next year, but there are other power threats available that the Nationals could explore as they get deeper into the offseason and shore up the rest of their roster.
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