The Nationals were a popular pick among many to win the World Series this season, but the team buckled under such heavy expectations. Washington emerged as a surprise contender in 2012, making the jump at least one year sooner than general manager Mike Rizzo may have projected. But the Nats never lived up to being a World Series favorite, failing to fulfill expectations early in the season. Bringing in first-time manager Matt Williams could bring a spark to a team that seemed to become lethargic under Davey Johnson. An 18-9 record in September — which almost put them in wild-card contention — reminded everyone what the Nats were capable of and provides something to build on for next season.
The Nationals don't appear to need much, which is what makes this past season so frustrating. But if there's one area Rizzo will likely focus on, it's the starting rotation. Obviously, the top three is outstanding with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Tanner Roark and Ross Detwiler could fill those last two spots on the starting staff, but it looks like Rizzo wants to go bigger and make a significant addition.
The bullpen also needs a left-handed reliever. Fernando Abad, Zach Duke and Ian Krol each gave up far too many hits in that role to be effective. Xavier Cedeno pitched well in September, but really didn't make enough appearances to make a proper judgment. If Detwiler isn't used in the rotation, he'll likely be in the mix here.
Improving the bench is likely also on the offseason to-do list. Steve Lombardozzi is the top utility infielder and Scott Hairston can play both corner outfield positions. But the Nats could use someone capable of playing center field and perhaps a corner infielder with some power. If he can hit left-handed, even better.
Backup catcher is one more position the Nats will need to address. Kurt Suzuki was traded back to Oakland during the season, and neither Jhonatan Solano nor Sandy Leon provided much offense. Both catchers provide good defense behind the plate, but don't hit well enough to warrant a spot in next season's lineup.
The free agent market has plenty of arms that could stock the back of the Nats' rotation. But are they better than what is already on hand? Plus, the Nationals tried that this year with Dan Haren and it was close to disastrous. Obviously, that doesn't mean that signing another veteran wouldn't work out. There are a few pitchers coming back from injury who might be worth taking a chance on with a one-year, incentive-laden deal like Josh Johnson, Roy Halladay or Johan Santana. However, Haren's performance may have confirmed a belief that the team needs to aim higher with a starting pitcher.
Plenty of left-handed relievers are also available on the open market, so the Nats should be able to add at least one to strengthen the bullpen. Bringing back Mike Gonzalez could be a possibility. But Rizzo could also add a more reliable lefty, such as J.P. Howell, Javier Lopez or Scott Downs. Rich Hill could also be worth looking at, though perhaps not as a bullpen's exclusive left-handed specialist.
For a reserve infielder that has some power, Eric Chavez could be a great fit. Ryan Zimmerman has difficulty staying healthy through a full season, so having a dependable backup at third base would be an asset. Chavez could also fill in at first base when needed. Casey McGehee and Kevin Youkilis are other options to consider. If Michael Young is wiling to accept a reserve role, he would be a nice addition to the Nats' roster as well.
Washington has some bullpen depth to work with, which could be used to help other spots on the team. Drew Storen never seemed to shake off his performance in Game 5 of the 2012 NLCS, when he allowed four runs and blew a two-run lead. The Nats signing Rafael Soriano to take over as closer didn't help Storen bounce back from that, either. The 26-year-old right-hander might need a fresh start with a new club, and Rizzo should find plenty of teams interested in a reliever with a career strikeout rate of 8.4 per nine innings and a 43-save season on his résumé.
Tyler Clippard is another reliever the Nats could consider dealing. The arbitration process should give him significant raise from his $4 million salary. Rizzo might not want to pay that, and with Clippard still under two years of club control, he should be able to yield more in a trade. The same could apply to Craig Stammen, though his salary won't escalate as high as Clippard's.
A bold move the Nationals could consider is trading Adam LaRoche to a team in need of a first baseman. That would allow Zimmerman to move over to first base and perhaps put his throwing issues behind him. Anthony Rendon could then switch to his natural position at third base. But then the question becomes what the Nats do at second base, especially if Danny Espinosa is still battling injuries and prone to striking out a lot.
Trading LaRoche might be dependent on being able to find another second baseman. However, there are a few possibilities Rizzo could pursue. The Reds' Brandon Phillips could be a nice fit, though the four years and $50 million remaining on his contract might be more than the Nats want to invest at that position. Howie Kendrick would also help the Nats' offense, while costing far less than Phillips. Dan Uggla is another option, though he's like Espinosa with more power (and is much better at drawing walks).
But the splashiest move Rizzo apparently has in mind is to land another top starting pitcher. There have already been rumors — or speculation at least, courtesy of FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal — that the Nationals could pursue the Tigers' Max Scherzer. The Nats have relievers that would interest Detroit, along with top prospects like A.J. Cole and Lucas Giolito, but that would be a rather high price to pay for possibly only one season from Scherzer. Additionally, that move doesn't necessarily help the Tigers next season, as their championship window begins to close.
Would Rizzo be better off pursuing David Price, since the Nats would have him for two years? Of course, that means Price will cost more and the Nats might not have the necessary resources for a deal. Perhaps LaRoche could be part of a potential trade package, along with the players previously mentioned, filling a big hole in the Rays' lineup. But would that be enough?