On rumors, mystery teams and improving the Nationals

I’m sitting at Gate B-4 at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport, having decided it’s better to arrive early for a 1 p.m. fight with a wintry mix in the weather forecast than to risk getting shut out of my Airport FastPark, my preferred long-term parking destination for business excursions. Better safe than sorry, right?

My friends who are trying to fly out of Reagan National or Dulles bound for Orlando (and, eventually, Lake Buena Vista, Fla., site of the annual baseball swap meet and free agent frenzy) are now wishing they had booked out of BWI. At least that’s what my Twitter feed says. Here’s hoping they reach their final destination, preferably today and on time).

MASNsports.com’s Dan Kolko and I will have you covered on everything the Nationals do - and don’t do - at the Winter Meetings. In his morning entry, Dan outlined what lies ahead for the Nats between arrival at Disney’s Dolphin and Swan Resort today (he said, hopefully) and Thursday morning’s Rule 5 draft.

Regardless of what the Nationals do - or don’t do - in the Sunshine State, one thing is for certain: The Nats will be tied to a bunch of players they have no interest in, and who have no real desire to play next summer along the shores of the Anacostia. And the reason for that is the progression from a 100-loss team that has seen the Nats transformed into a pennant contender.

Simply put, the Nationals have money to spend. How they’ll spend it and who they’ll spend it on remains to be seen. For general manager Mike Rizzo, the Winter Meetings are more about tweaking and adding complementary pieces than they are making a big splash. Likely the Nats’ biggest offseason splash has already happened: the trade a week ago that brought right-hander Doug Fister to D.C.

But that won’t stop the rumor mill at the world’s largest cocktail party from endlessly churning. Because the Nationals are flush with capital, they’ll be linked - again and again and again - to available free agents seeking a new home, particularly the top-flight names still in play. This is baseball’s theory of relativity - if a team has money and a player needs a new employer, they’re automatically a match. Don’t let silly things like existing players on the roster or need get in the way when you’re tossing spaghetti against the wall hoping a few strands stick.

So pay close attention to what transpires until we pack our bags and head back Thursday night. Not every rumor has validity. There’s no reason to become unnecessarily alarmed if you hear some far-fetched tale about how the Nationals might trade Wilson Ramos, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond or any other key commodity.

However, Rizzo is prone to making bold, unexpected moves - remember the last time Lake Buena Vista hosted the Winter Meetings, when the podium wasn’t even set up for press conferences and Rizzo signed Jayson Werth to the megadeal that surprised everyone? - and if he sees a way to improve his team, he’ll seize it.

That makes the Nationals a prime candidate to be the (mock) designated mystery team of these meetings. You know the mystery team, that unknown club that seems to sneak into all trade talks and free agent discussions. Again, reason and logic aren’t welcome in this discussion. Radio stations, TV networks, print scribes and Internet writers have to keep news churning for four days, so the presence of a mystery team is a convenient way to achieve that goal. Because the Nats have money, because Rizzo always wants to make them better, because a contender is a desirable destination, the Nats will be linked - and linked and linked and linked.

Some of the chatter will be downright ludicrous. Some will make a lot of sense and some will make a shred of sense. But it will be interesting to see what develops and which deals and signings are associated with the Nationals.

For a team with such lofty aspirations, this is an occupational hazard. Rise to the brink of contention and you’re relevant. Simple as that. It means a little more work deciphering the bunk from legitimate possibilities, but it’s certainly better than being so far off the radar that no one seems to care about you.

Enjoy the next four days. Keep track of everything happening in NatsTown right here. We’ll have daily, exclusive interviews with Rizzo and the most comprehensive Winter Meetings coverage available. We’ll also be tweeting - I’m @masnPete and Dan is @masnKolko - and we’d love to hear from you, both on our timelines and in the comments sections of our blogs.

So buckle your seatbelts and return your seatbacks and tray tables to the full, upright and locked position. And maybe say a prayer to the weather gods for an on-time takeoff before ol’ man winter decides to make things really interesting.

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