- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2013

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals came to Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings  with a limited checklist and left them Thursday in much the same shape as they had arrived four days earlier.

The Nationals had added a starting pitcher to their rotation with the Doug Fister trade last week. They signed Nate McLouth last Friday as a fourth outfielder. During the meetings they dealt for left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins to solidify the bullpen, but otherwise remained quiet. No massive contracts. No blockbuster trades. No drama.

“I wouldn’t say we have to do ‘X’ before we leave the winter meetings and before we get to spring training,” Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday after finalizing the Blevins deal. “We’re going to be active and aggressive with anything that comes to us that can improve our roster.”

Washington is acting like a team that refuses to overreact to an 86-win season, tied for the 12th-best record in baseball, after posting 98 wins during a magical 2012. Fister solidifies a rotation that figures to again be one of the sport’s best if everyone stays healthy. He’s also crucial insurance if they don’t.

Rizzo defined the second base job last week as Anthony Rendon’s to lose, with Danny Espinosa, the former starter, given a chance to push for a roster spot as a utility player after a rough 2013 season.

Washington is set at first base (Adam LaRoche), shortstop (Ian Desmond) and third base (Ryan Zimmerman). The outfield (Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper) is stable, too. What’s left to accomplish other than an added bat off the bench or maybe an established backup catcher?

SEE ALSO: MLB Winter Meetings: Nats lose catching prospect Nieto in Rule 5 Draft

If catcher Wilson Ramos goes down with a long-term injury during the season, Rizzo said this week, he will trade for a more established player. But for now Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon will compete to be the backup. Both are well regarded in the organization. Neither has much experience.

A veteran might work better in that spot, but Rizzo didn’t seem ready to go that route yet. It’s a difficult position to upgrade if regular playing time isn’t a selling point. As long as Ramos is healthy — Rizzo hopes he plays as many as 130 games next year — then that won’t be the case.

During the meetings, Rizzo also shot down the notion of trading relievers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen and said point-blank he envisions them and closer Rafael Soriano as the back end of the bullpen. Blevins is the lefty who showed an ability last year to be more than just a one-batter specialist.

“And then there’ll be competition for the rest of the bullpen. We’ve got a lot of options,” Rizzo said. “Guys that had terrific years like Craig Stammen will certainly be a bullpen guy for us and we’ve got guys with options that can go to the minor leagues and there’ll be great competition in spring training to see who breaks camp.”

Maybe the key decision for the Nats will be whether to sign starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann to a long-term contract extension. Shortstop Ian Desmond is in line for one, as well. Both players will be free agents after the 2015 season.

But as the Zimmerman negotiations in 2012 showed, getting a deal done well ahead of scheduled free agency is critical. The closer that timeline gets, the more likely a player is to test the open market and the less value he has to opposing teams in a trade.

Zimmerman signed his six-year extension just before a self-imposed deadline at the start of spring training in 2012. He, too, had two years left on his contract at the time. Two months before that, pitcher Gio Gonzalez signed a new five-year contract, also deciding against risking the wait for free agency.

So there is a history of early deals here even if Zimmermann and Desmond could always still sign next winter. But the pressure during offseason negotiations only rises as the date draws closer. Rizzo would not discuss the status of contract negotiations with either player, saying only that “we’ll be in conversations with them.”

“The benefit [is] that you know exactly what this guy’s health is, what his arm is, what his personality is and is he a guy that you want to extend long-term,” Rizzo said. “Because those long-term contracts you really have to know that personality and the track record and the history. I think that makes it easier to give guys longer-term contracts that you know than guys you’re going out in the free agent market and that you don’t know as well.”

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