November 8, 2011

Learning to Love the "Links"

Already this offseason the Nationals have been "linked" in one form or another to free agent starting pitchers C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson, as well as potential Japanese imports like Yu Darvish and Tsuyoshi Wada. And that's just the pitchers. The Nationals have also been named as a potential destination for free agent hitters from Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes to Grady Sizemore and Cuban refugee Yeonis Cespedes. Now the Nats aren't going to sign all, most, or necessarily even more than one of these guys. There's a possibility they'll end up with none at all. But even being in the conversation is a sometimes unsettling new reality for Nationals' fans.

A welcome side-effect of the team's status as newly-minted offseason players is a spirited debate among fans. Who's a better fit, Wilson or Darvish?  Oswalt or Buehrle for veteran staff-leader? What's the bigger risk, a Sizemore reclamation project or an unknown quantity like Cespedes?  Hot stove chatter is good for keeping baseball in the DC sports fan's consciousness, particularly now while the Redskins are imploding, the Wizards are locked out, and the Capitals are just beginning their long march toward a playoff berth. If the Nationals are going to become a year-round topic of local sports conversation, now is the time to get started.

Beyond the PR value though, the rumors are a sign that the Nationals have (finally) arrived as an MLB franchise. Fans can be forgiven for thinking that all this chatter is unusual, but really it's a result of the front office doing it's job. Mike Rizzo and his assistants should be making and fielding phone calls, kicking tires, examining all the options. This is what good teams do to get better and the only reason it feels novel is that for the first half decade of their most recent incarnation in DC the Nationals couldn't, or wouldn't participate in the process.

The team's "needs" for 2012 are fairly well defined. Someone has to play centerfield, and someone has to hit at the top of the order. Please, for the love of all things holy, note that these two roles do not have to be filled by the same person. The Nationals have been pursuing a "leadoff-hitting centerfielder" since 2005, with comically disastrous results.

Every thing beyond that is a "want". Rizzo wants to add another veteran starting pitcher, another bullpen arm, possibly a middle infielder and some big bats for the bench. These aren't quite luxuries, but they aren't indispensable either. Between the needs, the wants and the guys they have to find playing time for (Adam LaRoche, eight starting pitchers with 2011 MLB experience), there are a plethora of potential combinations, signings and trades for the Nationals this offseason. That's the biggest reason we're hearing the team's name pop up so often. (The other reason is leverage. Every free agent wants to be courted by as many teams as possible, and the Nats have a recent history of offering up big deals.)

Of course, the team probably doesn't see a fit for every player it's been linked to thus far, and even if it did it won't get them. The Nationals are not the only fish in the sea, nor are they the biggest. But they've finally graduated to swimming with the sharks, and fans will eventually learn to love the ride.

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