Nats GM Rizzo upbeat as Winter Meetings end

DALLAS - He thought he had the pitcher he wanted only to fall tantalizingly short of signing free agent Mark Buehrle, who opted for more money, a longer contract term and a reunion with former manager Ozzie Guillen in Miami. He talked to multiple teams about center fielders in trades, but couldn’t find a deal that worked. He was so busy courting Buehrle and trying to find a center fielder that his attempts at beefing up the Nationals’ bench got shuffled down the priority list.

Yet general manager Mike Rizzo sounded more hopeful than ever when he discussed what didn’t happen at the Winter Meetings.

“I think the Winter Meetings were productive, very productive,” he said in an exit interview with reporters following the Rule 5 draft. “We were extremely busy on a lot of different facets and I think we laid a lot of foundation for discussions with other GMs. I think we still have our goal of doing the things we were supposed to and I think we’ve come a long way in really getting close to doing something very productive to the club.”

Rizzo’s reflections represent more than glass-half-full optimism. With so much of the focus at the Hilton Anatole fixed on front-line free agents - Jose Reyes, Buehrle and Albert Pujols got their big-money deals, and C.J. Wilson and Prince Fielder’s price tags were no doubt bumped up a few notches - the Nationals made sure they spent time laying the groundwork for deals yet to be done.

“We’re still open for business. We’re going to keep an open mind and see what fits for us,” Rizzo said.

It’s become increasingly clear that the Nationals’ hopes of trading to fill their twin vacancies for a center fielder and leadoff hitter are coupled with their ability to get another pitcher. The pitcher gives Rizzo the latitude to include an arm in any deal, and he feels like it can still happen, though he’s not sounding as confident as he did a couple of days ago that the center field issue will be solved sooner rather than later.

“I wouldn’t say more confident than coming in here,” Rizzo said. “We feel we’re going to give ourselves every option to do it. Like I said, we’re not going to be rushed into anything or be forced into anything. If a deal is out there that we feel comfortable with, we’re certainly going to pull the trigger.”

Rizzo could wait until Monday’s deadline for major league teams to tender 2012 contracts to their players before doing anything. Think of this as a less-publicized way to fill holes, since the flea market atmosphere means one team’s junk is another’s potential treasure. The Nationals will have some decisions to make, and could cut ties with a few players, but they’re definitely more buyers this time around.

For instance, before he was traded to the Giants this week, Mets center fielder Angel Pagan was a non-tender possibility who could have nicely fit a Nationals need. And there will be others like him starting next week.

“We’ll see what the tender date brings to us and we’ll make an adjustment after we find out what the list is,” Rizzo said. “Every team has some decisions that are uncomfortable with the tender date - whether to tender players or not - and we’re not unlike a lot of the other clubs with those decisions.”

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