Despite speculation from national media outlets that the Nationals will be among the clubs making serious overtures to free agent first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder this winter, general manager Mike Rizzo insists he's "comfortable" with his team's current crop of first basemen.
The Nationals already have veteran Adam LaRoche (who missed most of this season with a left shoulder tear) signed for 2012 at 8 million. They also have Michael Morse coming off a breakthrough season in which he led the team with 31 homers, 95 RBI and a .303 average, with the majority of his playing time coming at first base while LaRoche was on the disabled list.
That hasn't stopped national media outlets from spreading rumors about the Nationals' possible interest in one of the two premier free agents about to hit the open market, particularly Fielder (whose agent, Scott Boras, already represents a number of Washington players including Jayson Werth, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper).
During an interview with CSN Washington, though, Rizzo gave a strong endorsement to the first basemen already on his roster.
"We'd never put down any type of definitive statements at this time of the offseason, but suffice it to say, we feel comfortable with the first base situation as it is," Rizzo said. "That's not to say something couldn't change during the winter. But we feel comfortable with LaRoche and with Morse in the background."
During a wide-ranging interview in which he also discussed his club's soon-to-be-completed managerial search, the possibility of a long-term extension for Ryan Zimmerman and the plan for top prospect Harper, Rizzo went out of his way to mention LaRoche as a potential key toward improving a Nationals lineup that struggled this season.
"We feel that the offense certainly can be improved," he said. "We need to be better with runners in scoring position. We need to get on base more often for our big middle of the lineup. But we feel that we played not with our full complement of players this year. Adam LaRoche, I think, is going to be a big key for us. He's a consummate 25-home run, 85-100 RBI guy, plays terrific first base as we all know. For him to get back to his career norms, I think, is a big infusion of offense right away."
Rizzo also cited the possibility of having Zimmerman healthy for the full season, Werth producing at a higher level and the continued maturation of young lineup members Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond as keys to increased offensive production in 2012.
"We feel that we have a piece of the remedy within the ballclub right now," he said. "But like we've said, we're not satisfied with where we're at. We certainly do need to tweak the lineup, and we feel we're going to do that during this offseason."
That tweaking is likely to focus on the acquisition of an outfielder (most likely a center fielder) who can get on base at a high rate. Though Rizzo didn't rule out the possibility of a major offseason signing akin to the one last winter that brought Werth to town for seven years and 126 million, the GM suggested such a "big splash" was less likely to occur this offseason.
One reason why the Nationals might not be looking to add another 100 million free agent right now could be the pending negotiations with Zimmerman over a long-term extension that figures to dwarf Werth's in total value. The 27-year-old third baseman, well-known as the face of the franchise since he was drafted in 2005, has two years remaining on his current 45 million contract.
Zimmerman has expressed a strong desire to get an extension locked down before he enters the final season of his deal, and talks toward that end could progress this winter.
"We realize what he means to us as a baseball team on the field, off the field and in the community," Rizzo said. "We're going to make every effort to keep him a National for a long, long time. We feel he's earned that respect, and we're going to see if we can hammer something out. ... We realize that we want him here. I think he wants to be here, and I think it's something that can be worked out."
The Nationals' first order of business this offseason is to name their manager, though that appears to be a mere formality at this point. Rizzo acknowledged he has interviewed several candidates since season's end but all but confirmed Davey Johnson will return next year. A formal announcement should come in the next seven-to-10 days.
"We feel pretty confident that Davey's in place," Rizzo said. "He's going to be here for years to come. He's a terrific manager. I can see him managing this team through 2012. We haven't made any announcements yet, because we haven't done our full due diligence, but those announcements will come probably soon after the World Series."
Rizzo spent the last couple of weeks in Florida, both at the Nationals' complex in Viera watching the Florida instructional league and in other towns scouting potential future spring training venues for an organization that has publicly acknowledged it is looking to move.
He'll head west soon to watch several of his top prospects compete in the Arizona Fall League, most notably Harper. The outfielder, who just turned 19 on Sunday, got off to a sluggish start in his season AFL season and produced only three hits in his first 27 at-bats. But he's gotten hot since, and on Tuesday went 3-for-4 with his first home run of the fall.
Harper has shown a tendency to start slow each time he begins playing at a new level, but Rizzo insisted the organization isn't concerned about that trend.
"We're not worried about when he gets his hits," the GM said. "Because at the end of the day, they're going to be there, and he's going to be a great player for us for a long, long time."
When, though, will Harper arrive in the big leagues? After dominating the low-Class A South Atlantic League from April through June, the slugger was promoted to Class AA on July 4 but wound up hitting just .256 with three homers in 37 games before a hamstring strain prematurely ended his first professional season.
Though Harper -- who has a major-league contract and is on the 40-man roster -- will compete in big-league camp next spring, he's all but certain to open 2012 in the minors. And indications are that he could go back to Class AA Harrisburg for Opening Day.
"The timeline hasn't changed," Rizzo said. "The timeline is dictated by his development. We'll evaluate him in the Arizona Fall League. We'll evaluate him in major-league spring training to determine where he's going to start the season. And as I've told him many times: It's not where you start the season, it's where you finish the season. That's what his focus is on, and that's what we're focused on also."
Harper, who made a few headlines this year for his conduct on the field, created another mini-firestorm earlier this month when he appeared to be openly rooting for the New York Yankees via his Twitter account. During Game 5 of the ALDS between the Yankees and Detroit Tigers, Harper tweeted three posts showing support for his favorite ballclub growing up. At one point, he posted: "I love my Nationals, but if I'm going to root for a team in the post-season its sic going to be the Yanks!"
Those tweets were deleted later that evening, and Harper has made no mention of the Bronx Bombers since.
Rizzo defended his top prospect's loyalty to his current organization.
"I would think if we were playing against the Yankees, he would root for us," Rizzo said. "I look at it this way: He's a very outgoing, gregarious guy. It certainly wasn't any of my staff or anyone else that told him to not do any more tweeting, or to take down the tweets. I don't know where that came from. But he's his own man. He's a 19-year-old who's learning on the fly to be a professional player. I haven't found one thing so far that's really upset me."