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12/02/09 12:00 AM EST

Pitching the focus for Nats at Meetings

Washington likely to plug holes through trades this offseason

WASHINGTON -- After watching his team drop 103 games this past season, it's pretty clear what general manager Mike Rizzo has to do to improve the Nationals: acquire quality pitching.

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Washington ranked a dubious first in the Major Leagues in walks allowed with 629 and finished last in the National League with a 5.00 ERA.

Rizzo is hoping to get something accomplished when the Winter Meetings begin on Monday in Indianapolis. Rizzo is looking to acquire at least one veteran starter to mentor his young rotation, which includes southpaws John Lannan and Matt Chico.

"There is no time limit or timetable to get something done at or before the Winter Meetings," Rizzo said. "Pitching is a priority for us. We are going to address it."

But don't look for the Nationals to attempt to break the bank like they tried to do with first baseman Mark Teixeira during last year's Winter Meetings. It's likely that Rizzo will make trades. So signing starter John Lackey or relievers Billy Wagner or Mike Gonzalez seem unlikely, unless they agree to a deal in Washington's price range.

"We don't think that the free-agent class leads us to [pay big money]," Rizzo said. "I believe the things we need or want the most are out there, and we are going to address it. I don't see us going after that super free agent like Matt Holliday or Jon Garland. I don't see us playing on that level. We don't think it's a fit for us."

While Rizzo declined to talk about players Washington would like to acquire in a trade, a baseball source indicated that the Nats have interest in Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco, who won 13 games this past season.

The Nationals and Marlins have been trade partners in the past. Last offseason, Washington acquired left-hander Scott Olsen and outfielder Josh Willingham from Florida for infielder Emilio Bonifacio. Of the three, Willingham was the most productive, hitting .260 with 24 home runs and 61 RBIs.

Among the Nationals' free agents, left-hander Ron Villone could return. Manager Jim Riggleman called the reliever a leader by example, because he wants to pitch on a regular basis and watches the game from the dugout after completing his work on the mound. Villone had a 4.25 ERA in 63 games.

"Ronnie sets a great example," Riggleman said in August. "He takes the ball more than anybody. He is 39 years old, but he is willing to pitch every day, which I think says a lot. It indicates to some other pitchers that this guy has been around a long time."

The Nationals made strides on offense this past season and may not need to acquire another bat. It will help that center fielder Nyjer Morgan, right fielder Elijah Dukes and catcher Jesus Flores are expected to be with the team for a full season.

Morgan was acquired in late June from the Pirates before breaking his left hand in late August, while Flores missed most of the season because of a right shoulder injury. Flores is expected to be ready for Opening Day. Dukes, on the other hand, spent significant time with Triple-A Syracuse last season.

As of now, it appears Washington will go into next season with Ian Desmond as its starting shortstop, while Cristian Guzman will switch from short to second base.

"We could always make a tweak in our offense, but I do think we have some help on the horizon -- even without making a deal," Rizzo said. "When you have a Nyjer Morgan and a healthy Jesus Flores the entire season, that's going to impact your lineup right there. But we need to score runs in different ways. That's what we are trying to address."

The Nationals could be major players in the Rule 5 Draft, which is held on the last day of the Winter Meetings. No doubt they will be on the lookout for pitching.

"We prepare for the Rule 5 Draft on the same lines as we prepare for the June [First-Year Player] Draft," Rizzo said. "It's a huge undertaking for us. We put a lot of man-hours in it and try to do the right thing. We leave no stone unturned. The success rate isn't great in the Rule 5 Draft, but with that said, you could get a Johan Santana or, on a lesser extent, Jesus Flores."

Former top prospect Zechry Zinicola was left unprotected since he has yet to turn the corner in his Minor League career. It didn't help that Zinicola was hit hard at Syracuse this past season. He had a 7.56 ERA in 26 games.

The Blue Jays could potentially take Zinicola in the Rule 5 Draft. It's no secret that former Nationals scouting director Dana Brown, now a special assistant to Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, believes that Zinicola can be a Major League reliever.

It was Brown who encouraged former GM Jim Bowden to trade right-hander Gary Majewski in 2006, because Brown felt Zinicola would be in the big leagues the following season, which never materialized.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.