Rizzo says Nationals are an outfielder and pitcher from contention

If the Nationals beat the Braves this afternoon, they will head into their final series of the season with 78 wins, and a chance to finish over .500 with a sweep of the Marlins. That kind of a record would give the impression that they’re only a player or two away from challenging for a playoff spot. General manager Mike Rizzo certainly believes that.

Rizzo said this morning that in his view, the Nationals only need a top-of-the-order outfielder and a pitcher to contend for a playoff spot next year. The remarks crystallized the Nationals’ priorities for the offseason much in the same manner Rizzo did around this time last year.

At the end of last season, Rizzo said the Nationals’ No. 1 offseason priority was to land a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, and gave hints the team would be aggressive in its pursuit of one through trades and free agency. The Nationals thought they had a deal worked out for Royals starter Zack Greinke until he invoked his no-trade clause, and Rockies starter Jorge De La Rosa rejected their offer, opting to return to Colorado.

This year, the Nationals will again be in pursuit of a veteran starter. With Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann healthy, the need for an ace isn’t as dire, but those two pitchers will probably account for about 350 innings in the most optimistic scenarios. They’ll also continue pushing for an outfielder; they had extensive discussions about the Twins’ Denard Span before the trade deadline, and also looked into acquiring the Rays’ B.J. Upton and the Astros’ Michael Bourn (who was traded to Atlanta). Upton again seems like a logical candidate to land in Washington this offseason.

“We’ve talked a lot about the need for a high on-base percentage top of the order bat, either to fill in one of our outfield positions, either center field or a corner outfielder if you move (Jayson) Werth to center field,” Rizzo said. “We’ve made that perfectly clear that that’s one of our needs.”

The Nationals could try to trade one of their young pitchers in an attempt to get a proven starter or a leadoff hitter; their organizational depth his probably never been better than it is now, and they’ve hung onto pitching prospects in the past, only to see them not pan out.

If they had the chance to move a young starter - either a prospect like Ross Detwiler or a proven player who is escalating up the arbitration scale like John Lannan - it wouldn’t be surprising to see them do it.

“We’re always looking to get better starting pitching-wise,” Rizzo said. “We’re looking for a top of the rotation guy like we always have been to supplement the younger pitchers below him. That puts everybody down a slot, makes everybody much more comfortable and as the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves can attest, you can never have enough good starting pitching. This is a grind of a season and when you play a month longer than everybody else into playoff baseball, it takes a lot of starting pitchers to get through the season.”