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12/02/11 12:01 AM EST

Nationals seek final pieces at Winter Meetings

WASHINGTON -- Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is heading to Dallas for the Winter Meetings, which start on Monday, to fix the problems that derailed the club in 2011. Free agency could be one way Washington makes the leap to become playoff contenders for the first time in its history.

Rizzo is looking for an above-average center fielder who can hit in the middle of the order or lead off.

The Nats could also 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, who could be at the top of the team's wish list, may be a logical fit, because he can help a right-handed-dominant lineup.

The Nationals have enough pitching depth on their Major League roster and in their Minor League system, but they're looking for a veteran starter who can help guide young arms such as Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

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Club needs

Starting pitching: The Nats have already had conversations with Mark Buehrle and have expressed interest in Roy Oswalt. It seems unlikely they will sign a pitcher like C.J. Wilson, who has only been a starter for two seasons.

Leadoff hitter: This past season, Nationals players hitting at the top of the order hit a combined .226 with a .285 on-base percentage. The team appears to be committed to shortstop Ian Desmond, who hit .281 when hitting out of the leadoff spot. However, it would not come as a surprise if Rizzo made a trade for a table-setter.

Center fielder: Rizzo was recently in the Dominican Republic to scout outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, a five-tool player from Cuba who is expected to become a free agent sometime this offseason. The Nats are one of several teams showing interest in Cespedes, and they believe he's big league ready. He is a right-handed-hitting slugger who could join Michael Morse and Jayson Werth in the middle of the lineup.

If they are unable to sign Cespedes, look for the Nationals to trade for a center fielder such as the Rays' B.J. Upton or the Twins' Denard Span.

Who they can or need to trade

OF Roger Bernadina: He is no longer an everyday player with the Nationals. If he stays with the organization, Bernadina will be a corner outfielder.

LHP Ross Detwiler: Before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Astros wanted Detwiler, among others, for outfielder Michael Bourn. Rizzo turned it down.

C Jesus Flores: His days as an everyday player with Washington are over because of Wilson Ramos. Flores showed, however, that he's over his shoulder problems.

RHP Drew Storen: His name was mentioned in trade rumors last summer. Rizzo would want a solid leadoff hitter in return for a closer who saved 43 games this past season.

Top prospects

RHPs Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole and Alex Meyer; LHP Tommy Milone, Matt Purke and Sammy Solis; OFs Brian Goodwin, Bryce Harper, Eury Perez and Michael Taylor; 1B Tyler Moore; 3B Anthony Rendon; C Derek Norris; and 2B Steve Lombardozzi.

The Nationals are loaded with pitching in the farm system. The only way they would trade any of their pitching prospects is if they get the center fielder or veteran starting pitcher that they covet.

Big contracts they might unload



RHPs Tyler Clippard and Zimmermann; 1B/OF Morse; LHPs Tom Gorzelanny, John Lannan and Doug Slaten; and C Flores.

Payroll summation

The Nationals don't like to talk about payroll, but according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the team spent more than $68 million in 2011. The Nats 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.