Nats ready to fire up Hot Stove

Nats ready to fire up Hot Stove
November 26, 2012, 9:00 am
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Technically speaking, the baseball offseason began the moment the San Francisco Giants wrapped up a four-game whitewashing of the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. That was 29 days ago.

In reality, the offseason has barely registered a blip on anyone's radar screen to this point. Yes, free agency kicked off five days after the Fall Classic ended. But do you know how many of the sport's 175 free agents have signed contracts so far? Twenty-one. That's all.

Baseball, as everyone knows, likes to take its time. This is the rare sport, of course, that doesn't feature a clock. So it's only appropriate that it always takes a while for the offseason to kick into high gear.

That time, though, has finally come. Thanksgiving has come and gone, the annual Winter Meetings begin one week from today and the Hot Stove League is ready at last to ignite.

You'll start reading more and more rumors in the days ahead, which players are in discussions with which clubs. You may see a handful of free agents sign deals before anyone arrives in Nashville on Sunday. You'll certainly see a smorgasbord of activity once those Winter Meetings commence at the massive Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

And you'll probably hear the Nationals mentioned as much as almost any franchise in the game, a clear departure from previous offseasons when they existed mostly on the periphery of all the action.

What do the Nationals need? It's been well-documented since mid-October, but let's run through it all again, in order of greatest need...

1. ADAM LAROCHE
So much of the Nats' offseason hinges upon the veteran first baseman. If he returns to D.C., the lineup is set. If he goes elsewhere, the dominoes start falling all over the place, with Michael Morse likely shifting to first base and the club then deciding if it wants to simply give left field to Tyler Moore or pursue a free agent center fielder like Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton and shift Bryce Harper to left field (or Harper to right field and Jayson Werth to left field).

Very little has come to light about the LaRoche market, but this much is certain: The Nationals would happily give their 2012 MVP two guaranteed years at a healthy sum. The question is whether they would be willing to give him three guaranteed years, and if not, whether another club (ie. the Red Sox, Orioles or Rangers) would then be able to swoop him away.

Look for more clarity in this dilemma over the next week or two, with the market perhaps defining itself better to the point LaRoche can finally make his decision and the Nationals can finally proceed with their larger offseason plan.

2. A NO. 5 STARTER
If ever there was a good winter to be in need of a reliable, veteran starter, this is it. There are no shortage of available options via free agency, only a question of how high the Nationals want to set their sets and how much money they're willing to spend to bolster what may already be the majors' best rotation.

At the top end of the spectrum are Zack Greinke and Dan Haren. In the middle of the pack are Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster and Brandon McCarthy. Further down the list are Joe Saunders, Shaun Marcum and Carl Pavano.

And then, of course, there's John Lannan (still under the Nationals' control though now out of minor-league options) and Christian Garcia (who may be converted to a starter next spring).

If the Nationals are dead-set on acquiring one of the big names, they may try to be aggressive and get something done in short order. If they're content to pick from among the rest of the litter, they could take their sweet time and find themselves a better bargain once the dust has settled.

3. A LEFT-HANDED RELIEVER (OR TWO)
Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez are both free agents. Either (or both) could re-sign, though Burnett may command a three-year commitment along the lines of the contract the Giants gave Jeremy Affeldt to stay in San Francisco through 2015.

Who else is out there? There aren't many other quality lefties on the open market. Veterans Randy Choate and J.P. Howell are probably the best of the bunch, which could put some added pressure on the Nationals to at least re-sign Burnett or Gonzalez.