Well, here we go. The most hyped four days of the offseason officially begin tomorrow, and so for myself and the rest of the MASNsports.com staff, it's off to Orlando today, a day ahead of the start of the Winter Meetings.
Don't let the location of the meetings fool you, however. If I see sunlight for a total of 30 minutes during the entirety of the Winter Meetings, I'll consider it a victory. This isn't exactly the trip you take if you're interested in working on your tan or hitting the links.
It's all baseball, all the time, to the point that many reporters are afraid to go to bed before a ridiculous hour for fear that news will break while they're mid-slumber.
This is typically the window when major trades and free agent signings are consummated or the groundwork is laid for such deals. General managers and executives from all 30 teams are in one hotel at one time, and they'll meet with each other and the various agents in town to try and improve their clubs for the upcoming season.
The Nationals have accomplished most of their offseason goals already, adding right-handed starter Doug Fister and left-handed outfielder Nate McLouth, leaving them with just a few holes to fill before spring training.
That said, here's general manager Mike Rizzo's list of priorities this week in Orlando:
1. Find a quality left-handed reliever
The Nationals had a need for a left-hander that they could stash in their bullpen from the earliest stages of the offseason. That need has only intensified over the last few weeks, thanks to two trades that shipped the Nats' most utilized left-handed relievers in 2013 to American League teams. Fernando Abad was designated for assignment and then traded to the Athletics for minor league outfielder John Wooten, and Ian Krol was sent to Detroit as part of the package that landed Fister, leaving the Nats with a gaping hole in the lefty reliever department.
A few of the left-handed relievers that were on the market this offseason have already landed deals elsewhere (Javier Lopez, Manny Parra, Wesley Wright), but there are still some attractive options out there. J.P. Howell might be the most sought-after southpaw remaining; he's a guy that the Nats also had interest in last winter before he signed with the Dodgers. Scott Downs, Boone Logan, Oliver Perez, Eric O'Flaherty and old pal Michael Gonzalez are also options. The Nats will need to sift through the available arms and attack the guy or guys that they feel are the right fit.
Xavier Cedeno and Sammy Solis are two in-house options, but the Nats learned their lesson last year after not having enough quality, proven left-handed arms in the bullpen. They won't make that mistake again.
2. Add an experienced backup catcher
Wilson Ramos is fully entrenched as the Nationals' starter behind the plate. But given his injury issues the last two years, the Nats would probably like to bring on a backup catcher who can slide into the starting lineup for a couple of weeks if Ramos happens to land on the DL yet again.
Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon have gotten limited playing time at the big league level each of the last two seasons, and they're certainly in the mix for the backup spot in 2014. But the Nats can't assume that Ramos will stay healthy and that Solano or Leon would be ready to handle the starting role in a pinch. They need to give themselves a security blanket in the form of an experienced backstop.
There are a few free agent options to keep an eye on, including former National Kurt Suzuki, Yorvit Torrealba, John Buck, Ramon Hernandez, Kelly Shoppach and Michael McKenry. Not many quality backups remain, however.
3. Make final tweaks to the back end of the roster
The Nats appear to have their eight starting position players in place, and they're done looking for starting pitching help after the Fister trade. They also have the bulk of their bullpen set for 2014, with Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen locked in, and have a host of options on board ready to compete for the final couple of spots. Same goes for the bench, where McLouth and Scott Hairston are set up as the reserve outfielders and Tyler Moore and Danny Espinosa have a decent shot to earn spots as backup infielders.
The major pieces that will make up the 2014 roster are apparently set. But the Nats still might look to add some back-end parts, guys who can add depth and compete for roster spots in spring training.
Outside of the needs that I listed above, Rizzo might want to acquire a veteran middle infielder who can compete with Espinosa as a backup at shortstop and second base, and it never hurts to have a host of capable relief arms in camp come spring. Also, I wouldn't be shocked to see the Nats sign a corner infielder with some major league experience who can provide depth.
Is it possible Rizzo surprises us and makes another major deal at the Winter Meetings? Sure. We've learned anything is possible in this game. Still, it appears the Nationals don't have many major needs outside of a left-handed reliever, although they'll still try and make the most of their time in Orlando, looking to piece together the strongest roster possible going into spring training.