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Long-term continuity key for Nats to take next step

Desmond, Span, Zimmermann among key contributors set for free agency after '15 @ladsonbill24

Hot Stove Tracker

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals had a solid season in 2014, winning their second division title in three years. But they fell short in the postseason, losing to the Giants in four games in the National League Division Series.

Hot Stove Tracker

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals had a solid season in 2014, winning their second division title in three years. But they fell short in the postseason, losing to the Giants in four games in the National League Division Series.

One can bet that as soon as the team was eliminated, general manager Mike Rizzo immediately began trying to find ways to improve the team this offseason.

Free agents/options
Washington has six free agents -- second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, first baseman Adam LaRoche, outfielders Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz, and right-handers Rafael Soriano and Ross Ohlendorf.

None of those players is expected to be back. LaRoche and the team had a mutual option for $15 million, but the Nats declined it, which means Ryan Zimmerman will be the everyday first baseman.

Soriano had a 6.48 ERA after the All-Star break. He simply couldn't keep his slider down in the strike zone and lost the closer's job to Drew Storen.

Rizzo decided to acquire Cabrera from the Indians before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Cabrera provided steady defense at second, as Anthony Rendon shifted over to third base.

Video: SF@WSH Gm1: Asdrubal goes yard with solo homer in 7th

After coming over from Cleveland, Cabrera expressed his desire to play shortstop. But once the Nationals were eliminated from the NLDS, he said he was willing to stay at second base. Going to the World Series is more important to him than playing shortstop. It is believed that the Nats will not pay an excessive salary to keep Cabrera.

Hairston and Schierholtz were part of the bench this past season. Hairston got off to a great start, but he tailed off dramatically starting in June and was taken off the 25-man roster during the NLDS.

Schierholtz started the season with the Cubs, but after getting released on Aug. 13, he signed a Minor League deal with the Nationals five days later. He made $5 million in 2014. It's doubtful that Washington will pay Schierholtz that kind of money in '15, though he could be back on a Minor League deal.

The first priority is to sign their core players long term. Shortstop Ian Desmond, center fielder Denard Span and right-handers Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tyler Clippard will be free agents after the 2015 season. There is a feeling that not all of them are going to be with the club past next season. One person familiar with the situation said, "The Nationals are going to be tight with their money."

It has been reported that Desmond and Zimmermann were offered long-term deals, which were turned down.

Video: MIA@WSH: Zimmermann completes no-hitter

The Nationals also need to overhaul their bench. For example, pinch-hitters batted a combined .144 this past season. Kevin Frandsen was the team's only reliable reserve off the bench. The Nats also need to look for a second baseman. Cabrera is not expected back and, while he is great defensively, Danny Espinosa has struggled at the plate -- especially from the left side of the plate.

Potential targets
If the Nationals are unable to re-sign Zimmermann and trade him before the 2015 Deadline, for example, they have starting pitching coming from their Minor League system. Right-handers Blake Treinen and A.J. Cole could be ready for the rotation for 2015. Treinen already has big league experience, while Cole was a combined 13-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 25 starts for Triple-A Syracuse and Double-A Harrisburg.

Trade assets
Rizzo likes to keep things close to the vest. One baseball source said he would not be surprised if Clippard was traded before the season started. He is in his last year of arbitration, and he expects to get a significant raise and will be free agent after next season. Washington could trade Clippard for prospects.

The Nationals could try to receive healthy returns if they are unable to sign Desmond and Zimmermann long term. Look for the Nats to trade for players who could make a difference for a long time.

This may sound crazy, but a player like Michael Morse could be a big help to the bench. During his career, he has a .290 batting average as a pinch-hitter. Morse was a valuable pinch-hitter for San Francisco this past postseason. It was Morse's pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning that tied up Game 5 of the NL Championship Series against the Cardinals. San Francisco then won the pennant an inning later on a three-run homer by Travis Ishikawa.

Obviously, Morse is looking to play every day, but it will be interesting to see how many teams will view him as a regular.

While the Rays have not said anything about trading infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist, it wouldn't come as a surprise if he were available for the right price. The Rays are expected to pick up his option, worth $7.5 million, soon. But he could become a free agent after the '15 season.

Zobrist can play almost anywhere, but the Nationals could look at him as a second baseman.

Bottom line
After losing to the Giants in the playoffs, look for the Nats to search for significant pieces to help them advance to the World Series for the first time in their brief 10-year history.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats.

Washington Nationals, Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Jordan Zimmermann