What’s on tap for the Nationals at the Winter Meetings

It’s the second week of December, snow just fell around here and thousands of folks who work in the baseball industry are en route to Orlando for the next four days. Yes, it’s time for the Winter Meetings, which for the fourth time in a dozen years is being held at the Swan and Dolphin Resort near Walt Disney World.

Will the Nationals consider this the Happiest Place on Earth by the time they head home Thursday? As always, it depends how aggressive they intend to be during this annual event, which has featured its share of dramatic moments over the years.

The Nats, lest anyone forget, traded for Alfonso Soriano at the 2005 Winter Meetings in Dallas, traded for Elijah Dukes at the 2007 Winter Meetings at Disney, signed Iván Rodríguez at the 2009 Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, signed Jayson Werth at the 2010 Winter Meetings at Disney and traded for Adam Eaton at last year’s Winter Meetings locally at National Harbor.

Rizzo-with-media-sidebar.jpgSo they’ve been known to make a big splash or two, even though general manager Mike Rizzo always insists he feels no pressure to get deals done at the meetings themselves and is perfectly willing to wait until later in the offseason to pull the trigger.

What’s on the docket for Rizzo and Co. this week? Here are their most likely targets by position ...

At the moment, the Nationals have only four proven starters on their roster: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. Their eventual fifth starter could emerge from within the organization, whether Erick Fedde is deemed ready or A.J. Cole is deemed good enough. But that would go against Rizzo’s standard M.O. He likes sure things in his rotation, and there’s reason to believe he prefers to go that route again this winter.

The free agent market has two big names available: Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. It seems unlikely the Nats will make the kind of long-term commitment either right-hander would acquire, but we said the same thing about Scherzer three years ago and how did that turn out? CC Sabathia is an intriguing short-term option if the veteran lefty is open to leaving the Yankees. A more plausible course of action, though, could be a trade in the mold of the ones that previously brought Gonzalez and Doug Fister to D.C.

The Nationals bullpen is in better shape now than it was a year ago, thanks to the additions of Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. But it still needs help after that. Brandon Kintzler, Matt Albers and Oliver Pérez are free agents. Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover are attempting to return from injuries. Enny Romero and Sammy Solís are not yet proven commodities, though the organization seems to like both lefties and isn’t emphasizing the need for another at the moment.

The good news is that there are plenty of right-handed relievers out there, as there are every winter. The bad news is that free agent relievers are notoriously hit-or-miss. (For the Nationals, they’ve historically been more miss than hit.)

Look for Rizzo to try to bring in several guys on non-guaranteed, minor league contracts (such as right-hander David Goforth, who signed Saturday) but you’ve got to think he’s going to sign at least one proven setup man to a guaranteed deal. It’s just a matter of picking the right one at the right price.

Adam Lind is gone (to the surprise of many) and so the Nationals have a gaping hole on their bench. They not only need a left-handed bat, they need someone who can back up Ryan Zimmerman at first base. Lind excelled in that role last season, and it may be tough to find someone who duplicates that performance. But it’s a necessity for this team, which can’t simply assume Zimmerman will be healthy and productive the entire season and thus has to make sure it has a viable backup option.

Howie Kendrick is a free agent, and though it’s possible he could return, the Nationals need to fill that spot one way or the other. Kendrick, of course, can play both the corner outfield positions as well as several infield positions, making him particularly valuable. If he doesn’t return, it will be hard to find a comparable player, but the emergence of Wilmer Difo this season does help cover the infield. An experienced backup outfielder - preferably a right-handed hitter who could back up Eaton and Bryce Harper - should be a priority this offseason.

There is, of course, more to the Winter Meetings than simple wheeling and dealing. All major league managers attend and hold a 30-minute session with reporters, so we’re going to hear from Dave Martinez (late Monday morning). There will be other announcements (including the potential election of Hall of Famers who played from 1970-87 but were not previously voted in by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America). And there surely will be a surprise or two along the way. There’s the always thrilling Rule 5 draft on Thursday, which ... ah, who am I kidding, it’s the biggest non-event of the year.

So if you’ve been craving a baseball fix after a long couple of months since the end of the season, you’re in luck, because this should be the newsiest week of the winter.

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