- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It was three weeks ago, a month removed from one of the most gut-wrenching nights of his career as a general manager, that Mike Rizzo reflected on the Washington Nationals’ playoff exit. 

He hadn’t thought about it too often, he said. Two days after his team’s 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of their National League Division Series, he turned his focus toward the 2013 season: The season most had targeted for the Nationals’ true ascension anyway.

Put him back into that ninth inning, he said, with a two-run lead and his closer on the mound, “I would take the same scenario next time.”

So now comes the tricky part — building a team to advance further. The Nationals’ needs are few, but specific, as baseball’s winter meetings begin Monday in Nashville, Tenn.

With the offseason slow to develop and none of the major free agents off the board, here’s a refresher on some of the Nationals’ most pressing issues.

Resolution with Adam LaRoche: The left-handed first baseman was an integral part of a team that won 98 games and the National League East title. The mutual interest in keeping LaRoche right where both sides saw him fitting so comfortably was obvious.

But the negotiations to bring him back have been slow.

LaRoche, 33, earned his right to free agency when he declined his end of a $10 million mutual option for next season. And after a career season, he’s in a favorable position to look for what could be the final long-term contract of his career. But that’s perhaps the biggest obstacle in his returning. Where he would prefer more years, the Nationals would prefer fewer.

The Nationals have other options. They can move Michael Morse to first base. They have Tyler Moore waiting in the wings for an everyday job. But neither option gives them the left-handed power and balance in the lineup that LaRoche would, and neither serves the same type of galvanizing leadership role that LaRoche did in the clubhouse.

“I know he wants to come back,” manager Davey Johnson said of LaRoche shortly after his own contract for 2013 was settled in early November. “And I know him. What’s a few extra million bucks? He lives off the land, and how many more cows can you get? They keep multiplying without buying any more. I like [our other options, but] we got the guy we want [in LaRoche].”

Re-signing LaRoche is the Nationals’ first priority, but other teams are interested. Getting a resolution will allow the Nationals to move on with the rest of their offseason plans.

Finding a fifth starter: The Nationals have long taken a stance, which Johnson embraces, of making their moves for today with an eye on tomorrow. It’s with that strategy in mind that they’ve begun their search for a No. 5 starter — by casting a wide net.

The starting pitching market has developed slowly, much the way most markets have, but there still are plenty of options available and the Nationals see five or six pitchers out there that they find intriguing.

“We’re not in the market for a quote-unquote ‘fifth starter,’” Rizzo said at the general managers’ meetings. “We want to get as good of a starting pitcher as we possibly can. He may pitch fifth in our rotation but we don’t necessarily want a No. 5-quality starter.”

At the top end is Zack Greinke, who reportedly could command $150 million over six years. Then come Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Dan Haren, Brandon McCarthy and a litany of other pitchers — including Edwin Jackson — who could fit the bill at the right price. The Nationals don’t want to limit their options, but they have to balance their financial future as well.

Internal options still include John Lannan, who is a prime nontender candidate, as well as right-hander Christian Garcia, who’ll be converted to a starter during spring training.

Left-handed relief: The Nationals remain interested in bringing back Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez, though to fill different roles, but the price for doing so continues to rise. Jeremy Affeldt, Burnett’s closest comparable though three years older, re-signed with the Giants for three years, $18 million. Jonathan Broxton, a right-hander, was signed by the Reds to close for three years, $21 million.

Burnett’s market is clear, if not set, and the Nationals will have to decide whether to allocate that kind of money to him or try to fill his role. Gonzalez, presumably, could be had for less. The list of lefty free agent relievers after those two won’t move the meter much but likely will be affordable.

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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