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10/29/11 11:48 AM EST

Free agency a building block for Nationals

Improvements could give Washington boost to contend in 2012

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals made significant strides in 2011. They finished in third place and nearly had a record over .500 for the first time since moving to the nation's capital after the 2004 season.

But Washington is not satisfied with what it accomplished. General manager Mike Rizzo is going to try to fix the problems the club had in 2011. Free agency could be the way the Nationals make the leap to become playoff contenders for the first time in their history.

Last offseason, the Nationals gave a seven-year deal to outfielder Jayson Werth; he wasn't as productive as the team would have liked in his first year of the contract. The Nats also signed fringe players such as Jerry Hairston, Todd Coffey and Rick Ankiel.

The Nationals could follow the same formula this winter, with another big signing and inking fringe players to improve the bench. On-base percentage is an area Rizzo wants improved, and he is also seeking a top-of-the-order bat to fill the outfield position in center field, or right field if Werth moves over to center.

The Nationals could be in the hunt for a first baseman, as they haven't made any promises to first baseman Adam LaRoche, who missed most of the season with a left shoulder injury. Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols could be at the top of the wish list, with Fielder a logical fit because he could help a right-handed-dominant lineup.

The Nats have enough pitching depth on their Major League roster and in their Minor League system, but they are looking for a veteran starter who can help guide young arms such as Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. That pitcher could come via free agency. One of their own free-agent pitchers is expected to be back in Washington -- Chien-Ming Wang, who made a tremendous comeback from shoulder surgery.

"We are an outfield bat away and a starting pitcher away from being a contender in the division," Rizzo said.

Contract issues

Free agents: Ankiel, OF; INF Brian Bixler, INF; Coffey, RHP; Alex Cora, INF; Jonny Gomes, OF; Livan Hernandez, RHP; Laynce Nix, OF/1B; Ivan Rodriguez, C; Wang, RHP.

Eligible for arbitration: Tyler Clippard, RHP; Jesus Flores, C; Tom Gorzelanny, LHP; John Lannan, LHP; Michael Morse, 1B/OF; Doug Slaten, LHP.

Mutual options: None

Non-tender possibilities: Gorzelanny; Slaten.

Areas of need

Bench players: Pinch-hitters batted under .200 with little power this past season. Manager Davey Johnson expects that to change in 2012. He wants RBI producers instead of players who are known for speed and defense.

Center fielder: Werth could start the season in center field, while the Nationals would be searching for a corner outfielder. Could Bryce Harper be that guy?

Leadoff hitter: Players slotted first in the lineup hit a combined .226 with a .285 on-base percentage.

Starting pitcher: The Nationals want a veteran starter like C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle or Roy Oswalt, who can help the young starting staff.

2012 Payroll: The Nationals don't like to talk about payroll, but according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Nationals spent over $68 million in 2011. The Nationals are expected to be playoff contenders in '12, so look for the payroll to go up even further as they look for a starting pitcher and another outfielder.

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.