Improved Nats look to reach next level in '12

Improved Nats look to reach next level in '12

Improved Nats look to reach next level in '12
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 it had in 2011. On-base percentage is an area he wants improved, and Rizzo is also seeking a top-of-the-order bat to fill the outfield position in center field, or right field if Jayson Werth moves over to center.

The Nats have enough pitching depth on their Major League roster and Minor League system that they could make a trade for an outfielder.

"We would discuss trading some of our pitching to fill some of our needs, if the trade makes sense to us," Rizzo said.

The team is also looking for a starting pitcher who would have an immediate impact while helping the young hurlers, such as Jordan Zimmermann and right-hander Stephen Strasburg.

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

Contract issues

Free agents: Rick Ankiel, CF; Alex Cora, INF; Livan Hernandez, RHP; Laynce Nix, OF/1B; Ivan Rodriguez, C.

Eligible for arbitration: Jesus Flores, C; Tom Gorzelanny, LHP; Michael Morse, LF; John Lannan, LHP; Doug Slaten, LHP

Player options: None.

Club options: Jonny Gomes, OF.

Non-tender possibilities: Gorzelanny, Slaten.

A position-by-position look at where the 2011 roster stands going into 2012

Catcher
The Nationals are set with Wilson Ramos behind the plate for years to come. Rodriguez, who is 157 hits away from 3,000, will not be back. Flores showed that he has fully recovered from shoulder surgery and is likely the backup for next season.

First base
The Nationals have three quality first basemen in Adam LaRoche, Chris Marrero and Michael Morse, and are set to go into 2012 with LaRoche in the starting role. LaRoche has another year left on his contract, while Marrero could be used as a trade chip. Morse will likely be an outfielder next season.

Second base
Espinosa has been up and down with the bat, but his defense saved the Nationals a lot of runs in 2011. Manager Davey Johnson is confident that the switch-hitting Espinosa will come around at the plate next season.

Shortstop
Ian Desmond improved defensively, but it took him until after the break to get his bat going. It helped that Johnson told him to stop taking every pitch to right field. Johnson has often compared Desmond to Barry Larkin, the best player Johnson managed. It will be interesting to see if Desmond lives up to that promise.

Third base
Third base is a position the Nats don't have to look at for years to come, provided they give Ryan Zimmerman another long-term deal. The only thing that Zimmerman needs is a chance to go to the postseason for the first time in his career, and that could happen next year if the Nationals fill some of their needs.

Outfield
For now, Werth and Morse are the corner outfielders. The big question is, who is going to play center field? Rizzo gave the scenario of Werth moving to center and trying to fill the right-field spot. One thing is certain, the Nationals want a top-of-the-order bat in the outfielder.

Rotation
For the first time in their history in Washington, the Nats' rotation has a bright future. It starts with Zimmermann and Strasburg, who will be on an innings limit. After that, it's anybody's guess who will complete the starting five, although Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock and Ross Detwiler showed great promise in September. If John Lannan is not traded for a bat, he will part of the rotation.

Rizzo said he looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation pitcher to lead Strasburg and Zimmermann. The Nationals already sent a scout to monitor Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson, who is eligible to become a free agent after the season. They also could go after left-hander Mark Buehrle, who has been a consistent winner with the White Sox for 12 seasons.

Bullpen
Thanks to Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, the Nationals have one of the strongest relief corps in the Majors. But the Nats need a long man out of the 'pen. Gorzelanny is not expected to be back with the team next year and Hernandez, who is a free agent this offseason, said he is willing to take over the role.

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.