Nats head home minus Roark, but with door wide open for others

LAS VEGAS - The Nationals came to town Sunday with a short list of roster needs after an aggressive run of moves earlier in the offseason. They leave town today without having filled any of those holes, but having created a brand new one.

Wednesday evening’s surprise trade of Tanner Roark to the Reds for minor league reliever Tanner Rainey wasn’t what most would have predicted would be the club’s lone transaction of the Winter Meetings. It left more than a few folks at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino scratching their heads, though the widely held assumption is that this was merely a precursor to the acquisition of another starting pitcher.

That acquisition hasn’t happened yet, but it certainly seems to be forthcoming sometime in the days or weeks to come. The Nationals’ remaining roster holes (second base, backup first base, left-handed reliever) aren’t nearly as significant as the one that now resides in the fourth slot of their projected rotation.

Mike Rizzo was not made available for questions following the trade, so the last on-the-record quotes we have of the general manager include him insisting “nothing imminent” was happening only 90 minutes before the deal with Cincinnati went down. We’ll have to wait to get his public explanation for trading away a rotation stalwart such as Roark, who was due to make about $10 million in arbitration before becoming a free agent next winter.

At the outset of the week, the dominant storyline for the Nationals figured to involve Bryce Harper. And sure enough, most of the discussion surrounding this team during the Winter Meetings was about the free agent slugger, who has not yet decided where he’ll play in 2019 and beyond.

Both Rizzo and agent Scott Boras insisted this week they haven’t closed the door on a possible return to D.C. for Harper, even after managing principal owner Mark Lerner said in radio and TV interviews last week he expects the 26-year-old outfielder to sign elsewhere after turning down a reported 10-year, $300 million contract.

“I never close the door on those type of things,” Rizzo said. “And we haven’t yet.”

Replied Boras: “I think when they say the door’s open, I would certainly pay attention to what they say.”

A timeline for Harper’s ultimate decision is anyone’s guess. Boras said Wednesday they’ve now met with every interested team, so at this point it comes down to narrowing the field and negotiating terms. So perhaps a deal gets done before the holidays, though given the way Boras typically operates few would be surprised if this drags on into January.

Which could have an interesting domino effect on the other prominent, homegrown star currently negotiating a long-term extension. While the baseball world was consumed with the more than 30 minutes Boras spent answering questions strictly about Harper during his marathon media gaggle Wednesday, astute Nationals fans perhaps gleaned more from the 90 seconds the agent spent answering two questions about Anthony Rendon.

(Could you find a more fitting example, by the way, of the difference between Harper and Rendon’s personas than in the amount of time Boras spent talking about the two Nationals stars?)

Rendon-Congrats-Harper-Gray-Sidebar.jpgWhile there was never any question Harper would become a free agent and talk to as many interested teams as possible before making a decision, Rendon has for some time now suggested he’s willing to engage in talks on a long-term deal with the Nats now, before he ever reaches free agency.

And Boras himself reiterated that Wednesday: “Anthony’s made it known he’s open to what the Nationals have to say, yes.”

Rendon, who is eligible for free agency next winter, and the Nationals admit they’ve had discussions on and off over the last year. Those discussions haven’t advanced to the point where they’re close to a deal, but both sides have expressed optimism that something can get done.

In this respect, Rendon seems to resemble teammate (and another fellow Boras client) Stephen Strasburg - who agreed to his seven-year, $175 million extension in May 2016 (six months before he was due to become a free agent) - more than he resembles Harper.

“I think Anthony wants to be here,” Rizzo said. “I think he wants to be here long term. And we want him here. Hopefully, there’s a deal that transpires out of that goodwill between the two sides.”

There’s a reasonable assumption that the Nationals can’t really get serious about negotiations with Rendon until they know where Harper will be playing in 2019 and beyond. Rizzo, though, disputes that assumption.

“We’re not putting that stipulation on it,” the GM said. “I don’t think they are. Scott deals with those two things independently, so I would say no.”

Boras talked up Rendon as only he can, elevating the third baseman (who has never made an All-Star team, though not because he didn’t merit the honor) to the highest echelon of current big leaguers.

“He’s been really one of the top 10 players in the game for the last three or four years,” Boras said. “I think for Anthony, the recognition that he’s received for his performance has, for whatever reason, not been to the level of his talent. And just this offseason, I think people are starting to really recognize what type of player he is. He’s really an MVP type of player. And certainly I think the Nationals are very aware of who he is.”

But is there a scenario in which the Nationals somehow sign both Harper and Rendon to long-term deals?

“We’d have to figure out what the deals looked like, what the structure is,” Rizzo said. “Too much hypothetical to answer it, but we love both players and we’d love to have both of them.”

As the Winter Meetings wrap up, all that’s clear is this: The Nationals have shown they’re perfectly willing to do just about anything. Their door always remains open.

Note: The Nationals neither selected nor lost any players in the major league portion of today’s Rule 5 draft, but they did participate in the minor league portion. The club drafted Chuck Taylor, an outfielder who hit .297 with a .377 on-base percentage at Double-A Arkansas this season, away from the Mariners.

Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba said Taylor was selected in part to fill the hole created when the club included outfielder Daniel Johnson in the recent Yan Gomes trade.

The Nationals also lost catcher Alejandro Flores, who hit .216 at Single-A Hagerstown this season, to the Astros in the minor league phase of today’s draft.

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