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November 13, 2012 at 7:10 am ET
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Harper’s ROY Award Means It’s Time to Move On

Exactly a month to the day after their Game 5 collapse, the Washington Nationals finally had something to celebrate: rookie phenom Bryce Harper captured the National League Rookie of the Year Award, narrowly beating out Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Wade Miley. Aside from the historical implications (Harper had one of the greatest seasons by a teenager ever, and is the youngest player to ever win the award), the win marks an important turning point for the Nats as they try to move past last season’s disappointment.*

*I’m sorry, I refuse to use words like “devastating” or “epic” when describing what happened in the St. Louis series. Sometimes, good teams get beat. It happens every year.

Harper’s award is just the tip of the iceberg: the Gold Gloves, the return of Davey Johnson, and the potential of Gio Gonzalez winning the NL Cy Young signifies not just last season’s success, but the hope fans should carry forward into 2013. As we enter the free agent frenzy, let’s take a look at some of this off-season’s biggest questions:

1. Will the Nats be big spenders in free agency?

The guess here is “no.” Never has a free agent class better epitomized the expression “buyer beware” than this one: each of the top potential targets have significant concerns. If they do decide to spend, the risk-averse Nats are likely to throw cash at either first base or center field. Given the options available at each position, it appears likely they’ll (over) pay Adam LaRoche and look for cheaper parts in center. The emergence of Roger Bernadina gives them a lot of flexibility moving forward that is just as adequate as giving Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton a dump truck full of cash. In an ideal world, they let LaRoche walk, collect the draft pick, move Morse to first (the place he can do the least amount of damage), slide Werth over to left, and let Bernadina get a crack at starting. With Harper in right, that’d be one hell of a defensive outfield. However, I don’t see it happening. Worst case scenario: Rizzo gives three to four high-dollar years to LaRoche and five to six years to Bourn. While a little retail therapy might be just what Nats fans needed after Game 5, abstaining from high-priced damaged goods would be the best holiday gift Mike Rizzo could give this team.

2. Will Drew Storen still be the Nats closer?

It’s his job to lose. Storen had a rough Game 5, but his replacements didn’t fare much better all season long: Tyler Clippard, Brad Lidge, and Henry Rodriguez were anything but dependable. The real question here is how will Rizzo fill out the rest of his bullpen: you can expect the Nats to offer arbitration to Clippard, Tom Gorzelanny, and Craig Stammen, but stalwarts Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez are free agents. Given the recent aggressiveness of the Dodgers and Giants, the Nats may need to act fast and pay up.

3. Who is next in line to get a contract extension?

Rotation mainstay Jordan Zimmerman is headed into his second year of arbitration so it makes sense to start talking about buying up some of his upcoming free agent seasons. At age 26, Ian Desmond finally had the break-out season the Nats always envisioned; as a solid defender with some pop at a premium position, the Nats could look at locking him down this year then getting Danny Espinosa next winter.

4. What’s the deal at catcher?

Wilson Ramos is the starter, but Kurt Suzuki will be around should Ramos still need some time to recover from last spring’s torn ACL. Despite his offensive struggles in 2012, I still believe in Jesus Flores. Unfortunately, he’s blocked by the veteran Suzuki, who was a cute pickup in 2012 but in 2013 will be a wildly overpaid backup ($6.45M). In a perfect world, Flores would find a spot on the roster, but a trade or non-tender is more likely. Too bad, for less than $3M, he’d be a hell of an insurance policy given the team’s poor luck at the position last season.

5. Who will replace Edwin Jackson?

Jackson entered 2012 on a one-year deal, prime to exploit weak NL offenses and a pitcher-friendly home park into a big free agent payday. Instead, Jackson delivered another perfectly-average season. For most pitchers, that’s fine. For a guy with as much talent as Edwin, it’s like driving a Ferrari on 495 during morning rush hour. Jackson is the perfect rent-a-player: he is just about a guarantee for 200 IP and the occasional brilliant start or mound-immolation. Other than that, there’s not much reason to commit top-of-the-rotation money to him. Instead, look for the Nats to install Ross Detwiler in the fourth slot and perhaps open up the fifth spot to either an in-house candidate (arbitration-eligible John Lannan) or a veteran innings eater on a short-term deal (Jeremy Guthrie? Ryan Dempster?). It shouldn’t matter: the fate of this team is in the hands of Gio, Zimmerman, and Steve. As it should be.

This fall sucked, but it is time to move on. With less than 150 days until Opening Day 2013, the Nats return the core of a team that won 98 games last season. Let the countdown begin.

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