Of the trades general manager Mike Rizzo has made in his 17 months running the Nationals, almost all of them have presented one viable course of action.
Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan were on the outs in Washington last year, and Rizzo was trying to get something of value for them. Easy; the Pirates were willing to offer the leadoff hitter Rizzo needed (Nyjer Morgan) and the lefty reliever he preferred (Sean Burnett). Ronnie Belliard to the Dodgers was a cinch, too; get something of value for a player who's a month from being a free agent.
Even the two trades Rizzo made this week were easy strategic choices. Matt Capps was going to hit arbitration after the year, and get a big raise, while Cristian Guzman's tenure in Washington was going to be over in two months. Might as well get value for them now.
But the decision Rizzo faces today - and really, the one he's been staring down for the better part of the season - doesn't have an easy answer. What happens today will set some direction, one way or the other, for the future of the franchise. And it will give us a glimpse of where Rizzo's taking things.
The GM has had somewhere around a half-dozen teams throwing prospects at his feet all month in offers for first baseman Adam Dunn, who will be a free agent after the season. We all know the route that got the Nationals to this point: A fan asked Rizzo at a January season-ticketholder luncheon about signing Dunn to a contract, Dunn facetiously stood up, led his own round of applause and stared down owner Mark Lerner, Rizzo said he'd been talking to Dunn's agent already and off we went.
Since then, though, nothing has happened; Rizzo and Dunn's agent, Greg Genske, have talked back and forth about a deal, but the Nationals have rebuffed any attempts to put a deadline on the negotiations, with a team source saying earlier this season that the Nationals are completely comfortable waiting to sign Dunn until after the season if need be.
If Rizzo sticks with that course of action today, it will mean turning down any number of offers for Dunn and gambling on the success of negotiations that haven't reached both sides' desired end for six months. If he trades Dunn for the highest bid, shipping off the contract decision to another team, he'll take one of the game's most potent power hitters out of his lineup at a time when homers are at a premium and the Nationals are silently hoping their pitching staff is good enough to make them competitive in 2011. There's also the matter of what Ryan Zimmerman, the face of the franchise, a friend of Dunn's, a beneficiary of his presence in the lineup and - most importantly - a free agent in three years, would think of all this.
Even the offseason escape hatch offers no guarantees; sources say the Nationals believe they could always get a pair of picks for Dunn by offering him arbitration, but they run the risk of Dunn accepting, playing next season for $15 million and putting the Nationals right back in this spot next July. Dunn has stated his preference for a long-term deal, and would seemingly have no better chance to cash in than this winter's free agent market, but he also wants to stay in Washington.
Rizzo sounded resolute when talking to reporters yesterday, saying he wouldn't move Dunn unless a team met his admittedly exorbitant price and adding that his stance wouldn't change before the deadline. It could've been posturing, but it was consistent with everything that's been coming from the Nationals camp all season, and it came from a man who's made his way in baseball with blunt honesty.
So the clock ticks closer to today's 4 p.m. deadline, and Rizzo's choices are clear: Trade Dunn for the best offer out there, sign him to an extension today or do nothing, betting on either successful negotiations down the road or the protections of the draft-pick compensation system.
The right choice is not clear. And that's where Rizzo, perhaps for the first time as the Nationals' GM, will have to show his mettle.