Shields among Nats' top targets

Shields among Nats' top targets
December 3, 2012, 9:15 am
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What is the Nats No. 1 priority at the winter meetings?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Winter Meetings officially begin today, but with all the pertinent parties already in place last night the rumor mill started churning out juicy bits of information.

And with the Nationals garnering far more attention than in previous years, what quickly became clear was that Mike Rizzo is considering some very big names to fill the final hole in his starting rotation.

Though Rizzo could stick with the conventional path and sign one of several high-priced free agents on the market, he's also using the trade route to pursue a starter.

And perhaps his best possible trade partner is Rays general manager Andrew Friedman.

The Rays are loaded with pitching, but in their never-ending quest to keep payroll down are willing to listen to offers for their higher-priced starters. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner David Price would be the ultimate catch, but the price tag for the 27-year-old lefty is likely to be astronomical, so the more likely target remains right-hander James Shields.

Shields, 30, is an obvious fit with the Nationals. He's a workhorse who has averaged 222 innings over the last six seasons. He's a power pitcher who ranked third in the AL in strikeouts each of the last two seasons. And, perhaps most important from the Nationals' perspective, he's under control for two more years.

The Nationals don't want to put all their eggs into a make-or-break run for the World Series in 2013, but they also don't want to saddle themselves with too many more long-term contracts that could prevent them from locking up their own maturing players (like Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond).

Shields is due to make $10.25 million in 2013; the Rays then hold a $12 million option (with a $1 million buyout) on him for 2014. Those numbers would work well from the Nationals' standpoint, essentially filling the $11 million slot Edwin Jackson held last season.

Shields won't come cheap when in comes to players Tampa Bay wants in return. And already the speculation centers on two members of the Nationals' everyday lineup: Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa.

Rizzo is perfectly willing to trade Morse -- provided, of course, he can re-sign Adam LaRoche -- but he's less willing to deal Espinosa. The Nationals do have an obvious replacement at second base in Steve Lombardozzi, with Anthony Rendon figuring into the infield picture as well sometime in the next few years.

But Rizzo remains a steadfast Espinosa supporter, and manager Davey Johnson stands firmly in his corner as well.

Espinosa could wind up the deal breaker in any talks with the Rays. But whether or not something comes together over the next three days, it's clear the Nationals have multiple different paths en route to the starting pitcher they covet.

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