Nationals' roster won't change much next season

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Photo - Alex Brandon/AP
Outfield Jayson Werth has five more seasons left on his contract and is one of seven Nats regulars in the field signed for 2013.
Alex Brandon/AP Outfield Jayson Werth has five more seasons left on his contract and is one of seven Nats regulars in the field signed for 2013.
Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

It was too soon.

The Nationals had just seen their 2012 season end in heartbreaking fashion in a 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Friday night. So the ability to look ahead to 2013 was beyond the grasp of most of them.

But the fact remains that the Nats are a young team that has most of its key players under contract for several more years. The only free agents of note are first baseman Adam LaRoche, starting pitcher Edwin Jackson and left-handed reliever Sean Burnett. The core of the team will return with a full season expected from ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

Nationals superlatives

MVP
Adam LaRoche
The first baseman has a contract with a mutual option, but he likely will head into free agency with plenty of ammunition for a bigger deal. He was the steady presence in Washington's lineup all season, the one key regular who avoided injury, with a career-high 33 home runs and 100 RBIs. LaRoche also provided excellent defense at first base. It was an impressive return after left shoulder surgery ended his 2011 season in May.
Top pitcher
Gio Gonzalez
He put himself in the mix for a Cy Young Award with a 21-8 record and a 2.89 ERA. But even if he doesn't win it, Gonzalez was everything the Nats hoped for after trading four talented prospects to the Oakland A's in December for the left-hander. Gonzalez was the perfect complement to homegrown starters Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler and became the No. 1 starter in the postseason. He struck out 207 batters.
Breakout player
Bryce Harper
He came up in April earlier than expected out of desperation as injuries began to cripple the lineup. Harper simply put together one of the great seasons ever by a teenager. At age 19 he hit 22 home runs -- two shy of the record for a teenager set by Tony Conigliaro -- and had 59 RBI. He adjusted well to center field, where he had limited experience, and stole 18 bases. His final OPS was .817.

"I think this goes for life. You kind of run into some trials and tribulations. You endure," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "And you build character. And we're fortunate to have the majority of the team returning next year. I guess our bond is only going to get stronger. We're only going to get better."

The process of building next season's roster already has begun, according to general manager Mike Rizzo. The team has had talks with LaRoche's representatives, though no deal is imminent. There aren't many obvious holes on the roster other than first base if LaRoche leaves -- and even then outfielder Michael Morse played effectively there the year before when LaRoche missed most of the season with a shoulder injury.

"We never stop," Rizzo said. "We're always thinking about roster construction and what our plans are going to be and what we're trying to do. That's the easiest part of this whole transition."

Otherwise, if the team remains comfortable with Bryce Harper in center field, then there is little room for movement. Jayson Werth still has five years left on his deal as a corner outfielder. Morse signed a two-year extension last winter. Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Steve Lombardozzi are all young middle infielders still under team control.

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman signed a six-year contract extension in February with a team option for a seventh season. Catcher Wilson Ramos is years from free agency, and Kurt Suzuki, acquired in an Aug. 3 trade and with a year left on his deal, appears a capable backup.

Among the starting pitchers, Gio Gonzalez also signed an extension last season, and the core of the rotation will remain in Washington until at least 2015. The team would like to secure an extension with starter Jordan Zimmermann after his fine 2012 (2.94 ERA).

Even most of the bench players return, including top pinch hitter Chad Tracy, who signed a contract for 2013 this summer.

"I see this team doing great things," said veteran utility man Mark DeRosa, who admitted he may be among the few players left out next year. "I sit there as a position player and say, 'Where do I fit? Where would I fit on this team?' The eight spots are pretty locked down for a while."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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