1. Trying to keep LaRoche » The offseason has already begun for the Nationals with Mike Rizzo and company at the general managers meetings in Indian Wells, Calif., this week. There aren't many holes on this team, but no one can afford to stand pat. The first order of business is re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche. He had a career-best 33 homers and 100 RBIs, and won a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove. But at 33, how long of a contract is Washington willing to offer him? He provides balance to the lineup as a lefty bat and stability in the clubhouse. Would they go three years? Four if LaRoche finds that on the open market? Tough call. If not, the Nats have options at first. None are as good as LaRoche.
2. Finding another starter » With the team likely parting ways with Edwin Jackson -- and John Lannan apparently not far behind -- the Nats need a fifth starter. But that doesn't mean they want a "fifth starter" -- a back-end guy with a limited production ceiling. Angels ace Zack Greinke, 29, is on the open market, and Washington tried to trade for him two years ago. He's a fit. But at what cost? The Nats don't necessarily need a true ace anyway with a full season expected of Stephen Strasburg and excellent depth with Gio Gonzalez, a 2012 National League Cy Young finalist, and Jordan Zimmermann. Ross Detwiler also had a breakthrough season. Add one more quality pitcher to that group and you have baseball's deepest rotation.
3. Getting some relief » It's never a good idea to stand completely pat on a bullpen. Relievers are so volatile that this year's lockdown setup man can quickly become next year's overpriced has-been. The guy who dominated lefties suddenly can't get them out. The best solution? Stockpile arms in the big leagues and have kids in the minors ready to step in. The Nats would like to re-sign lefties Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez. Both were relatively effective options, and Burnett dealt with elbow issues much of the year anyway. If healthy he could return to form of previous years. Scott Boras client Ryan Madson missed last year with Tommy John surgery but is a power arm with a solid track record in the back end of the bullpen.
If LaRoche leaves ...
Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche declined a qualifying offer the team made to him last week. That officially makes him a free agent, and he can field offers from other teams. There's no question the club wants him back, and LaRoche and his family made it clear they felt at home in Washington the last two seasons. Playing for a contender certainly doesn't hurt the cause. But the Nats do have a price that they won't meet. LaRoche is a Gold Glove defensive player and had a career-high 33 home runs in 2012 with 100 RBIs. He also earned a Silver Slugger Award as the best offensive player at his position in the National League.
But if some other team -- the Texas Rangers, maybe -- makes a long-term offer that Washington's front office isn't comfortable matching, then the Nats will move on. General manager Mike Rizzo showed that when he let slugger Adam Dunn after the 2010 season instead of signing him to the four-year contract he eventually received from the Chicago White Sox.
If LaRoche does leave then there are internal options. Michael Morse played a passable first base in 2011 after LaRoche went down with a shoulder injury. Tyler Moore hit 10 homers, but there are questions whether he can do that over 500 at-bats at the big league level -- and his defense is suspect. Where the Nats would gain flexibility, though, is to go after a center fielder like Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton and push Bryce Harper to a corner outfield spot.
Possible free agent Targets
1. CF Michael Bourn » The Braves center fielder would provide speed and base running instincts at the top of the batting order and remains an elite defensive player. He is 29, so there's concern how long those tools will hold up in a long-term deal, which he will likely get from someone. Signing Bourn would also likely force a trade of left fielder Michael Morse -- unless first baseman Adam LaRoche departs via free agency.
2. SP Kyle Lohse » The Cardinals righty is familiar to the Nats, who saw him twice in the playoffs and twice in the regular season. He had a fine season with a 2.86 ERA. But at 34, a long-term deal seems an extreme risk for a player who doesn't overpower batters and is a top candidate to regress in the coming seasons. That was easily the best season of his career.
3. SP Dan Haren » Cut loose by the Los Angeles Angels last week despite being a Cy Young candidate in 2011 and having a phenomenal second half when traded to the Angels in 2010. But back and hip injuries are a concern and may have contributed to a 4.33 ERA last year. Those issues reportedly short-circuited a trade to the Cubs. Haren could be a far cheaper option than some of the other top pitchers on the open market with a high ceiling if healthy.
4. SP Brandon McCarthy » Oakland's right-hander had a 3.24 ERA, but there will be concerns after an early shoulder injury and a scary concussion suffered after a line drive smashed into his skull ended his 2012 season. But he has excellent control (24 walks) and could prove an upgrade from Edwin Jackson at a cheaper price.
5. CF B.J. Upton » The Rays center fielder was also a trade target of Washington's in recent years. He grew up in the Hampton Roads area with Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright and his brother, Justin, among others. He's a solid defensive player in center, but the advanced metrics say Upton has regressed some in recent seasons. And do the Nats need another power hitting, high-strikeout, low on-base percentage guy? He is still only 28.
key Offseason dates
November 12 » AL and NL Rookie of the Year Awards announced
November 13 » AL and NL Managers of the Year announced
November 14 » AL and NL Cy Young Award winners announced
November 15 » AL and NL MVP announced
November 15-19 » World Baseball Classic Qualifier 3 in Panama City, Panama (Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama)
November 15-18 » World Baseball Classic Qualifier 4 in New Taipei City, Taiwan (Chinese Taipei, New Zealand, Philippines, Thailand)
November 30 » Midnight, last date to tender contracts
December 3-6 » Baseball Winter Meetings, Nashville, Tenn.
December 6 » Rule 5 Draft, Nashville, Tenn.