Rauch, Lopez not far apart from Nats

Rauch, Lopez not far apart from Nats

They're a trendy team, these Nationals, with a new stadium, an overachieving roster and a growing fan base.

Now it's time to pay the bills.

Two Nationals exchanged salary-arbitration figures with the team on Friday, sparking a process that could take more than a month to complete. While reliever Jon Rauch and shortstop Felipe Lopez can still work out new contracts with the Nationals over the next few weeks -- hearings take place from Feb. 1-21 -- they'll have to do it soon. If their cases do go to arbitration, the decisions there are binding.

An arbitration panel will choose one of the two offers submitted, though for the Nationals, there's not much difference of opinion. In a process that often pits teams millions of dollars away from their players, Rauch and Lopez each submitted requests only $300,000 removed from what the Nationals have offered.

Lopez asked for $5.2 million, while the Nats countered with a $4.9 million deal, and Rauch asked for $1.4 million against the $1.1 million offered by the team.

Perhaps those similar numbers will encourage all parties to agree to new deals before they head to a hearing. If not, then an arbitration panel will have to consider the facts.

Rauch excelled in his role setting up closer Chad Cordero last season, even earning four saves of his own. He finished the year with eight wins -- more than every other Nationals pitcher, starters included -- and a 3.61 ERA, all while leading the Majors with 88 appearances. Last season, he made only $455,000, and is now guaranteed to at least triple his salary.

"I feel like I've kind of settled into a role that I'm comfortable with and a role that I know how to prepare for," Rauch said in September, comparing his relief success to what he felt as a starter. "I'm more conscious of what my body is doing."

Lopez didn't quite share the same success, especially considering what the team expected from him following his strong Nationals debut in 2006. After hitting .274 with 11 homers and 44 steals in time split between the Reds and Nationals that summer, he dropped to a .245 mark with nine homers and just 24 steals last season.

Hot Stove

In mid-September, manager Manny Acta held a 45-minute meeting with Lopez to discuss the shortstop's year-long struggles, and to give him a vote of confidence.

"He's frustrated," Acta said at the time. "He feels that he's worked very hard and has tried everything, and things are just not going his way right now."

Lopez made $3.9 million with the Nationals a year ago.

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.