Nats' Plan B might be status quo

Nats' Plan B might be status quo
December 8, 2011, 2:54 am
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DALLAS -- Mike Rizzo sat in his suite at the Anatole Hotel at 3 p.m. today and spoke confidently about the Nationals' chances of signing free agent left-hander Mark Buehrle.

"I feel good about it," the Nationals GM said. "I feel good about how we presented it, and I feel good about the fit and the opportunity and had good dialogue with Mark and his people. So, yeah, we feel good about ourselves."

Roughly 30 minutes later, Rizzo was being interviewed on the radio -- by Jim Bowden, of all people -- when he learned Buehrle wouldn't be signing with the Nationals but rather with the suddenly free-spending Marlins, who locked him up for four years and 58 million.

Talk about a tough way to find out your top offseason target spurned you for a division rival.

Later in the evening, after he'd had time to digest the news, Rizzo appeared at ease with the manner in which the day's events transpired, even if the end result wasn't what he had in mind.

"We're good," he said. "We're going to move on to Plan B and see if we can help ourselves. We feel good about the way the Buehrle thing went. It was a good presentation and a good negotiation. He went where he felt most comfortable, so we wish him well."

Calm exterior aside, it had to be a bitter pill for Rizzo and the Nationals to swallow. They arrived in Dallas on Monday with a clear plan of attack, and that plan featured Buehrle as their No. 1 target, with everyone else a distant second.

Nobody else on the open market -- either via free agency or a trade -- was as good a fit for the Nationals as Buehrle, who would have been well-positioned as a No. 3 starter and veteran complement to young aces Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

That much was clear the way Rizzo raved about the 32-year-old hurler during his afternoon media session (when he still believed he was in the running to sign him).

"He's playoff-tested," Rizzo said. "He's won a World Series. He's a Gold Glove-caliber player at his position. ... I just like watching him pitch. He works fast, he throws strikes, he has no fear. The catcher puts the fingers down, and he throws it."

Well, he'll be working fast and throwing strikes for the next four years in one of Miami's gaudy new uniforms. Who could have imagined the Marlins would dominate these Winter Meetings, signing (so far) Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Heath Bell for a combined 191 million, reportedly making a serious charge tonight at fellow left-hander C.J. Wilson and coming oh-so-close to snagging the biggest fish of them all: Albert Pujols.

In the end, Pujols' decision to stay in St. Louis instead of taking his talents to South Beach probably cost the Nationals their shot at Buehrle. Consensus opinion among those who follow the Marlins closely was that they were prepared to either sign Pujols for 220 million or go hard after both Buehrle and Wilson. They weren't in a position to do both.

But what's done is done, and there's nothing the Nationals can do about it now. Instead, they'll need to turn to their Plan B and figure out another way to improve their roster this winter.

So what's Plan B? The Nats weren't entirely sure tonight.

"It could be free agent," Rizzo said. "It could be trade. It could be the international market. We're going to explore all options, as we usually do, and see if we can come up with a match."

Their options appear to be limited.

Roy Oswalt is certainly a possibility, and Rizzo said the club will look closer at the 34-year-old right-hander. But the two sides are far apart at the moment. Oswalt is seeking a three-year deal. The Nationals are reluctant to offer more than one guaranteed year, given the back injury that limited the veteran to only 23 starts with the Phillies this season.

"We're not specifically targeting Oswalt as Plan B," Rizzo said. "Plan B is to look at all of our options, and he'd be one of the options we look at."

What about the trade market? There are a handful of pitchers who could be available, headlined by the Athletics' Gio Gonzalez, but the price tag is substantial for the young left-hander. Oakland GM Billy Beane wants three or four top prospects in exchange for his 26-year-old burgeoning ace. It's doubtful Rizzo would meet that price.

"We have spoken to Oakland," Rizzo said. "Gio, he fits what we're looking for. He's a young, controllable, talented starting pitcher that's got a proven track record. With that said, those guys come at a cost. So we have to balance what the cost is and what the gain is to the club in the long term."

The international market? Sure, the Nationals could outbid everyone else on Yu Darvish if the Japanese sensation is posted by his employers, the Nippon Ham Fighters. But the total package to land Darvish is expected to approach 100 million; that's a whole lot of dough to spend on a completely unproven commodity who may or may not succeed in the major leagues.

So where does that ultimately leave the Nationals? Maybe right back where they've been standing all along.

This may come as a disappointment to team executives and fans who have been hoping the addition of one or two key players could catapult the franchise to instant-contender status, but the Nationals just might be good enough to win with the status quo.

Think about it this way: They just won 80 games during a season in which Stephen Strasburg missed five months, Ryan Zimmerman missed more than two months, Adam LaRoche missed four months and Jayson Werth posted some of the worst numbers of his career. If those four players merely stay healthy and perform the way they're supposed to perform, the Nationals should be improved enough to contend.

Oh yeah, don't forget to add Bryce Harper to the mix at some point in 2012.

"I believe our offense is going to be stronger than it was last year, for myriad reasons that we've discussed," Rizzo said. "We're going to have a full season of Zimmerman, a full season of LaRoche, a year more of maturation for the three young players in the middle of the field (Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos). We feel we're going to get more out of Jayson. We feel just for those reasons alone, we're going to upgrade our offense."

Combine that improved offense with a rotation that for now includes Strasburg, Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler -- with prospects Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone waiting in the wings -- and a bullpen that's already one of baseball's best, and the Nationals are by no means in bad shape as currently constructed.

That doesn't mean the NL East is going to be a picnic, not with the Phillies still boasting five consecutive division titles, the Braves solid as always and the Marlins suddenly an unstoppable force of nature.

But the Nationals are still positioned to compete with all three of those rivals, not only in 2012 but over the long haul.

Would Mark Buehrle have helped put them in an even better position to win right away? Sure. But he alone wasn't going to be the difference between playoff contention and a losing record.