Time to ignite the Hot Stove

Time to ignite the Hot Stove
November 28, 2011, 1:00 pm
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One week from today, the baseball world will converge on the massive Anatole Hotel in Dallas for this year's installment of the winter meetings. In theory, the Hot Stove League has been in season for nearly a month now. In reality, it's about to be ignited at last.

The Nationals have always entered the winter meetings with an idea of what they needed, but they've perhaps never had objectives as clear-cut as they will this year. It's no secret what general manager Mike Rizzo wants: a veteran starter and a center fielder who ideally would hit leadoff.

There are a few other needs -- another arm or two for the bullpen, not to mention several bench pieces that could prove important -- but those are more likely to be filled later this winter after the big-ticket items have been plucked off the shelves.

So the Nationals' focus over the next 10 days or so figures to be on those two primary needs. Their paths to acquire each, though, may not run parallel.

Rizzo hopes he can fill his rotation hole via free agency, and he's already zeroed in on his top target: Mark Buehrle. Members of the Nationals front office, led by Rizzo, flew to St. Louis last week to meet Buehrle in person. It's the same strategy they took last winter with Jayson Werth, a personal recruiting visit that proved valuable in that case.

It'll take more than a nice, personal touch to land Buehrle this winter, though. The left-hander is in high demand; some published estimates suggest there are as many as 10 or 12 suitors for him. If that's true, look for Buehrle to be among those at the center of attention in Dallas next week and perhaps recognize that he can bide his time and let teams start trying to outbid each other in an attempt to land the best contract.

The Nationals will have to decide whether they want to wait out the Buehrle sweepstakes, or whether they want to shift their focus to another experienced starter on the open market: Roy Oswalt. The veteran right-hander would fit nicely into the Nationals' rotation behind Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, and he'll probably come cheaper than Buehrle because of his lingering back injury this season in Philadelphia.

The center field market is tougher to discern. There aren't any obvious free agents who fit the Nationals' specific need (at least, none who don't have some kind of question mark hovering over their head right now).

Rizzo, though, has suggested before he could try to address some of his team's needs through the trade market, and that may apply in this case.

For the first time since they arrived in D.C. in 2005, the Nationals have built up the kind of organizational depth that would allow them to consider trading from one position of strength in order to address a hole at another position. They've got an excess of catchers (Wilson Ramos, Jesus Flores, Derek Norris) and perhaps even left-handed starting pitchers (John Lannan, Ross Detwiler, Tommy Milone). Rizzo could dangle some of those players as trade bait in an attempt to acquire his center fielder.

What center fielders might be available via trade? Well, the most obvious possibility is B.J. Upton, who faces an uncertain future with the Rays. All teams have until Dec. 12 to decide whether to tender 2012 contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. Upton (who earned 4.825 million this year) stands to receive a decent raise in his final season of arbitration-eligibility, and Tampa Bay could choose to non-tender him and not risk a large payout to the 27-year-old.

If that happens, Upton would become a free agent. Which means the Nationals would be competing with other clubs for his services. However, Rizzo could elect to get the jump on his competitors and try to acquire Upton via trade before the Dec. 12 non-tender deadline.

He'd have to give up some young talent in exchange for Upton (who under that scenario would be signed for only one more season unless the two sides worked out a long-term extension) but he wouldn't have to convince Upton to come to Washington the way he would if the outfielder becomes a free agent.

Either way, the time for speculation has nearly ended. As the calendar inches closer to December and the winter meetings draw nearer, the true Hot Stove League is about to ignite.