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Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse would be big pieces in 2013, but after that?
It's a philosophy that has done the Nationals well, allowing them to build a team that not only reached the postseason for the first time this year but is built to keep on winning for years to come.
Might it be an appropriate time, however, to tweak that philosophy? For the first time in their history, might the Nationals sacrifice long-term potential in exchange for short-term satisfaction?
This might be the most compelling, over-arching question of the offseason. Clearly, this is a team that will enter 2013 with a real shot at winning the World Series, no matter what moves Rizzo makes before pitchers and catchers report for spring training. But there are moves Rizzo could make to bolster his club's chances of immediate success, if he's willing to perhaps hinder his chances of winning down the road.
It starts, really, with Adam LaRoche, the most-pressing offseason question facing the Nationals. Both Rizzo and the free agent want to continue their marriage, hoping to build off a fantastic 2012 that saw LaRoche win both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove at first baseman while finishing in a sixth-place tie for NL MVP.
There's no question LaRoche's return would give the Nationals a better chance of winning the World Series in 2013. But the only way LaRoche will be playing in D.C. in 2013 is if he gets a long-term contract, most likely with at least three years guaranteed.
The Nationals may be willing to meet those demands, but doing so could hamstring them down the road. With LaRoche locked up through, say, 2015, there might be no spot on the diamond for young slugger Tyler Moore, or no vacant spot that would permit Michael Morse or Ryan Zimmerman to some day make a position switch. And, of course, there's no guarantee LaRoche would still be a 30-homer, 100-RBI threat at age 35 in year three of a contract that could turn into an albatross.
Speaking of Morse, he figures into this dilemma as well. Signed for one more season at a reasonable salary of $6.75 million, he'll be poised to strike it rich next winter as a free agent. Given all the other long-term financial commitments the Nationals already have on the books (Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez) and those they would like to add in the very near future (Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann) there probably isn't enough money left over to re-sign Morse.
Which is why you've heard some speculation the slugger could be traded this winter. Rather than lose him via free agency and receive a draft pick as compensation, Rizzo could be inclined to seek a deal now that would bring a larger return back to Washington.
That would certainly be a wise long-term strategy. But if the Nationals are more interested in going for broke in 2013, they'd much rather keep Morse one more season and then let him walk away after that.
And then there's the dilemma in center field, a longstanding issue for the Nationals that could easily be resolved this winter if they're willing to pony up for one of two big-name free agents on the market: Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton. Either would make a nice addition to the lineup, particularly the leadoff-hitting Bourn.
But the cost to acquire either free agent could be a five-year contract, one that would certainly have long-term ramifications for the organization. Would Bourn help the Nationals win right now? Absolutely? Would he still be as helpful in 2017, more than someone the Nats could promote from their own farm system like Brian Goodwin? That's debatable.
Put this all together, and it becomes clear Rizzo faces quite an interesting dilemma this winter. He could decide to go for broke, play all his cards and assemble a roster that has the very best chance of winning a championship in 2013. Or he could decide to stick with the plan that has worked so well to this point, making calculated additions that give the Nationals a chance to win now but not at the expense of winning in the future.
It's a dilemma the Nationals have never faced before, but it's certainly one worth considering now that they suddenly find themselves in a position they've never held before.