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Upgrading 'pen atop to-do list for busy Nationals

Club has key free agents, but also replacements on roster

WASHINGTON -- Baseball season officially ended Sunday night, but the Nationals will continue to stay busy this offseason. They are trying to improve from a 2015 campaign in which they finished in second place in the National League East behind the NL champion Mets.

The Nationals crossed off one important piece of business on Tuesday, when they agreed to a multiyear deal with Dusty Baker to become the team's manager.

Nationals' Hot Stove Tracker

Free agents/options: The Nationals have nine players -- including shortstop Ian Desmond, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann and outfielder Denard Span -- who are free agents. It would not be a surprise if none of them are back, because the Nats have players who could replace them. For example, Trea Turner is expected to take over at short next year, replacing Desmond. Right-hander Joe Ross would likely be the fifth starter, while Michael Taylor will be the starting center fielder.

Video: [email protected]: Turner hits first homer, Zimm presents ball

Needs: The Nats' No. 1 goal is to revamp their bullpen, which endured its worst year since 2009. By the second half of the season, Washington didn't have quality setup men to bridge the gap to closer Jonathan Papelbon. If they want to acquire an All-Star closer such as Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, the Nationals most likely would have to give up a lot of players to get them.

The club also needs a second baseman who can hit for consistency. Anthony Rendon will return to third base, his natural position. Danny Espinosa is an excellent defender, but he is too inconsistent at the plate.

Jayson Werth is their best option to lead off because of his high on-base percentage. Turner could be another option, but he hasn't hit leadoff in the big leagues.

Catcher was a serious problem for Washington. Wilson Ramos was praised for staying healthy for the first time since 2011, but he had his worst year with the bat and people in the organization privately complained about his game-calling and inability to catch throws from the outfield.

Potential targets: The Nationals could consider Ben Zobrist, who is a free agent. He hits with consistency and is solid defensively at second base. Keep in mind that Zack Greinke opted out of his contract with the Dodgers. The Nationals had a chance to acquire Greinke after the 2010 season, but he accepted a trade to the Brewers instead. Orioles catcher Matt Wieters is a free agent, and ESPN reported that Milwaukee catcher Jonathan Lucroy could be acquired in the right deal.

Trade assets: Espinosa, Papelbon and Ramos, Drew Storen, Yunel Escobar and Tyler Moore all could be trade bait. The Nationals could get their share of players for Escobar, who had the best year of his career while playing third base.

Storen was arguably having the best season of his career until the Nationals traded for Papelbon to become the closer. After Papelbon joined the team, Storen had a 6.75 ERA and broke his thumb after he allowed a game-winning homer to the Mets' Yoenis Cespedes in September. The Nationals showed Storen three times over the years that they don't trust him as a closer.

Espinosa had a productive season coming off the bench. It was a year in which he played all four infield positions, as well as left field.

Papelbon was supposed to make the bullpen even better, but he didn't get many save opportunities and then was suspended the final four games of the season for having a run-in with Bryce Harper.

Financial situation: The Nationals don't like to talk about payroll, but they started this past season at $162,014,559, according Cot's Baseball contracts. It wouldn't come as a surprise if Rizzo signs a major free agent and makes significant trades.

Bottom line: If the Nationals want to win their third NL East title in five seasons, they must improve their bullpen, play better defense and hit with consistency.

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