Examining the Nationals’ trade chips

It seems like only yesterday we were drawing the curtain on the 2011 season at Nationals Park. Now, we’re a couple of days away from baseball’s power brokers convening in Dallas at the Winter Meetings, where they’ll engage in trade chat, sign free agents and generally talk shop until the wee hours.

I’ll be there representing MASNsports.com, keeping you up to date on everything the Nationals do - and some of what they’re rumored to do - so make sure to check back frequently next week.

Between now and the start of the Winter Meetings - or the night before, if the Nats replicate their surprise signing of Jayson Werth from a year ago - there will be a lot of speculation on what moves they might make. Will they trade to get the front-line starter general manager Mike Rizzo covets, or sign a free agent? How will they solve their longstanding need for a leadoff-hitting center fielder? Can the Nats lure the “hairy-chested thumper” that manager Davey Johnson wants off the bench?

There’s little question the Nationals have money to spend, but they’ll have to be careful a year after bestowing high expectations and a seven-year, $126 million deal on Werth. I think Rizzo will be a player in the free agent market - he wants a left-handed starting pitcher and ex-Rangers hurler C.J. Wilson is available, though a potentially imperfect fit - but I suspect that this is going to be one of those collections of baseball executives that produces an unusually high number of trades.

Why? There are definitely haves (Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, Wilson, Mark Buehrle) and a large assortment of have-nots on the free agent register. The haves will play all ends against the middle, trying to exact the best possible (read: dollars) deal out of potential clients. While one or two may sign in Dallas, I think there will be more parry-and-thrust during the Winter Meetings than completed deals. In Dallas, the have-nots - the lower-end free agents who want to agree to a contract and be done with it for some job security - are more likely to sign. Think of Dallas as where a lot of the groundwork will be laid in hopes that, by Christmas, those top-tier deals will be signed sealed and delivered.

That means Rizzo and his peers will have to split their focus, entertaining the Scott Borases of the baseball world while talking among themselves to see if mutually beneficial ways exist that can solve each other’s problems with a swap or two. And though the Nats have a long list of guys who are practically untouchable - Werth’s contract is an albatross Washington won’t be able to shed and players like Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman, Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, Michael Morse and Bryce Harper are an enviable core group - they have pieces that could be attractive to other clubs.

That was a point of lively discussion in the MASNsports.com live video chat Byron Kerr and I hosted earlier this week, and a question posed on our MASN Nationals Facebook page asked who might be the team’s best trade chips. So we’ll recap some of them now.

Left-hander John Lannan has started 30 or more games in three of the past four seasons. At 27, he’s no longer a greenhorn, and his durability - not to mention the 3.70 ERA he posted in 184 2/3 innings last year - will make him attractive to a team wanting to bolster its rotation. The Nats have to act carefully, however, balancing their need to eventually create rotation space for youngsters with the injury histories of Strasburg, Zimmermann and Chien-Ming Wang. But Lannan could be a piece they could package to fill a need.

Ditto for guys like shortstop Ian Desmond and setup man Tyler Clippard, who were both asked about by multiple clubs last season at the trading deadline. Dealing Desmond, who’s the de facto leadoff hitter unless the Nats can acquire a better one, makes no sense unless Rizzo acquires another shortstop (or shifts Espinosa there and finds a different second baseman). Trading Clippard could create a hole in the bullpen, one of the Nats’ strengths last year. But you know the old baseball adage: You’ve got to give up something to get something.

Catcher Jesus Flores will draw some interest, mainly because the Nationals have a couple of young catchers in the pipeline and they could easily find a stopgap until Derek Norris is ready for prime time (heck, Ivan Rodriguez could even be re-signed in the short term). But Flores won’t bring back much in return. We’re talking minor deal here, or a piece to a package.

Where the Nats will draw a lot of interest is their young arms, some of whom were auditioned in September, partially because they’d earned the chance and partially because seeing how Tom Milone and Brad Peacock fared against major league competition also qualified as an opportunity to showcase them to potential suitors. The Nats have been raving about their burgeoning pitching for several years, and some of those guys are close, if not ready. But there are only so many spots available in the rotation, and we’ve seen that not every good young starting pitcher can translate into an effective reliever. So don’t be surprised if opposing GMs don’t inquire about some enticing packages that include guys like Milone, Peacock, Brad Meyers, Robbie Ray, A.J. Cole, Daniel Rosenbaum, Sammy Solis and Cameron Selik.

In theory, trades should benefit both teams. But sometimes, the team that’s willing to take the extra step - include the additional arm or bat to sweeten the deal - is the one who is able to outmaneuver the competition. This is where Rizzo’s background in scouting and player development comes into play, and where he’s best positioned to do something bold.

Follow Pete Kerzel on Twitter: @kerzelpete