Nats have pieces in place to take next step in '13
Core of club to return; decision on LaRoche's mutual option will clarify big picture
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals made significant strides in 2012. They finished with the best record in baseball and thought they would go deep into the postseason, but they ended up losing to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series.
"I just told players it was nothing to hang their heads about. It was a great year," manager Davey Johnson said. "We overcame a lot of problems. We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson and learn from it, have more resolve, come back and carry it a lot farther."
Can the Nationals go to the World Series next year? It depends on the tweaks they make this offseason.
Free agents: Chien-Ming Wang, RHP; Mark DeRosa, INF; Zach Duke, LHP; Michael Gonzalez, LHP; Edwin Jackson, RHP
Eligible for arbitration: Roger Bernadina, OF; Tyler Clippard, RHP; Ross Detwiler, LHP; Ian Desmond, SS; Jesus Flores, C; Tom Gorzelanny, LHP; John Lannan, LHP; Drew Storen, RHP; Jordan Zimmermann, RHP
Mutual options: Adam LaRoche, 1B; Sean Burnett, LHP
Non-tender possibilities: Flores and Lannan
A position-by-position look at where the roster stands going into 2013
Kurt Suzuki was acquired from the Athletics because of his great game-calling behind the plate. He will continue to get most of the playing time next year, while Wilson Ramos will come back slowly from his devastating knee injury.
Ramos is the team's catcher of the future. Flores is not expected to be back with the Nats. They will try to trade him before they hit the arbitration table.
LaRoche has a mutual option and the Nationals have made it clear that they want him back for next year. It's going to take at least a two-year deal to keep him on the roster. Not only was LaRoche the team's most consistent run producer, he was a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman. If LaRoche doesn't come back, it would not come as a surprise if Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse or Tyler Moore plays the position.
Danny Espinosa has been up and down with the bat, but his defense saved the Nationals a lot of runs in 2012. However, Espinosa could have some competition for a starting job next year. Steve Lombardozzi did a great job as a backup, and many fans felt he should have had more playing time during the postseason. Lombardozzi could be a good leadoff hitter and is an excellent defensive second baseman.
Johnson has often compared Desmond to Barry Larkin, the best player Johnson ever managed. Desmond lived up to those expectations, setting career highs in almost every offensive category and was arguably the team's MVP. Desmond will be Washington's shortstop for years to come.
A domino effect could to happen if the Nationals don't re-sign LaRoche. A baseball source left open the possibility that Zimmerman could be switched to first base while Anthony Rendon could be given a chance to start at third base.
In his first full season of professional baseball, Rendon spent a lot of time on the disabled list, hitting .233 with six home runs and 12 RBIs in 43 games. He is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League. Zimmerman was productive as usual at the plate, but had right shoulder problems. He will have minor surgery on the shoulder soon.
For now, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth are going to be in center and right field, respectively. The big question is, who is going to play left? If LaRoche signs with another team, Morse is most likely the guy at first base. However, a baseball source left open the possibility that Morse could be traded, meaning the Nationals would let Moore try to win the job in left field.
Both Moore and Morse are not outfielders by trade and are better suited at first base. The source also said that opposing teams have expressed interest in Moore.
The Nationals had the best rotation in baseball this past season. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Detwiler are set. It's almost a given that Lannan will be non-tendered. As the source put it, "We are not paying him $5 million [like we did this season]." The source also said it's a 50-50 that the Nationals re-sign Jackson. It seems doubtful that Washington would give him a long-term deal. Wang will not be back after spending most of the season on disabled list.
Don't be surprised if general manager Mike Rizzo tries to sign a veteran pitcher like Zack Greinke, who will become a free agent after the World Series. Rizzo would be looking for a veteran who could help lead the young rotation.
Thanks to Storen and Clippard, the Nationals have one of the strongest relief corps in the Majors. But the bullpen imploded during the postseason. Don't look for Rizzo to make major changes. Burnett probably won't be back. Storen will remain the closer.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.