- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Even before the Washington Nationals’ contingent had arrived at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel on Sunday afternoon, the question was being bandied about by members of the baseball community: What will the Nationals do next?

The team that won a major-league-best 98 games in 2012, along with the National League East title, entered the offseason with very few needs for the 2013 season.

And they still managed to pull off an impact trade Thursday for Denard Span, an everyday leadoff-hitting center fielder their general manager has been coveting for years.

As the other teams in their division continued to make moves, the rich, it seemed, were getting richer.

So as baseball’s winter meetings commence Monday, the Nationals‘ next moves will be watched with interest. Will they sign a pitcher? Will they set the groundwork for a trade? Will they find the left-handed relief they’ve left themselves without after Friday night’s nontender deadline cut ties with Tom Gorzelanny?

In an ideal world, the Nationals will resolve their contract negotiations with first baseman Adam LaRoche — and that will allow plenty of other things to fall into place.

LaRoche and the Nationals have had amicable but slow negotiations since before the 2012 season ended, and there’s very little mystery left between them.

LaRoche would like a three-year deal. The Nationals, with Michael Morse and Tyler Moore at their disposal as well as a bevy of infield options for the future, would prefer a two-year pact.

LaRoche and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo spoke over the weekend at a charity event for manager Davey Johnson, according to a report in The Washington Post, and while there appears no great rush for a resolution, if they do reach one it would free up the Nationals to make the most of their time at these meetings.

That likely would involve fielding interest in one of their biggest current trade chips: Morse.

The Nationals‘ slugging left fielder who has endeared himself to fans for his power as well as his walk-up music, Morse would seem to be positionless if the Nationals agreed with LaRoche. He’s also an affordable (he’ll make only $6.75 million in 2013) middle-of-the-lineup bat who will instantly upgrade any team’s offense.

Using Morse as trade bait, the Nationals could look to fill their only glaring hole: a fifth starting pitcher. That, as Rizzo has said, could be a No. 5 starter in name only. And it’s where a team such as the Tampa Bay Rays could come into play.

The Rays, who are constantly looking to shed payroll and keep their roster eminently affordable, have a crop of starting pitchers and several good ones who are about to become expensive (for them).

Names such as James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson could come into play. Larger names like Cy Young winner David Price might enter the equation as well, but the price to acquire him likely would leave the Nationals‘ farm system even more barren and they’d have to guard against opening up holes on their existing major league roster.

And if the price on the trade market appears too high?

That’s when the Nationals could turn their attention to the free agent starting pitching market, where Zack Greinke and his $130 million- $150 million price tag awaits, along with other top-tier starters who won’t come cheap (Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse) and several on the next level (Brandon McCarthy, Dan Haren).

It was two years ago this week that the Nationals sat at the podium and made a splash with the $126 million right field sitting next to them. Now Jayson Werth’s signing, the splash of a team that had been known much more for their follies than their power, carries far less shock value.

Now they are a team everyone is watching closely to find out what they’ll do next.

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