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December 5, 2012 at 7:11 am ET
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The Nationals are Quietly Winning the Offseason

Baseball’s free agency period is a lot like a Best Buy at 12am on Black Friday: once the floodgates open, customers shop relentlessly, often times with money they don’t have. Months later, they look back at that 42 inch Vizio and wonder why they ever spent $500 on a TV that gathers dust in a second bedroom.

The Los Angeles Dodgers kicked-off this winter’s frenzy by overpaying for Brandon League. They’ll likely do the same for Zack Greinke. The Boston Red Sox, buttressed by the financial bailout bestowed upon them by the¬†aforementioned¬†Dodgers, couldn’t help themselves, promising close to $80M to two players who at this stage in their careers are probably more useful as platoon players. B.J. Upton, he of the sub-.300 on base percentage in 2012, received $75M from the mid-market Atlanta Braves. As baseball’s winter meetings commence, teams like the Seattle Mariners chomp at the bit, waiting for their turn to buy the last obsolete big screen.

Suffice it to say, the Washington Nationals don’t do Black Friday. Coming into the offseason, many thought baseball’s New Money would splurge on a center fielder, a fifth starter, and commit tens of millions to bring back Adam LaRoche. Instead, Mike Rizzo’s systematic approach has the Nationals looking like one of baseball’s¬†savviest¬†organizations.

Understanding the market for position players is grossly overpriced (Angel Pagan, anyone?), Rizzo took advantage of a re-building Minnesota team, acquiring Denard Span and three years of premium center field defense at a great price. Sure, giving up Alex Meyer hurts, but the Nationals are in a win-now mode, and it’s unlikely Meyer would help the big league club for at least two more seasons.

The addition of Span not only gives the Nats the¬†lead-off bat and center fielder they’ve coveted for years, it also indirectly¬†draws a line in the sand with Adam LaRoche: “Take the two years and our money, or good luck finding work elsewhere. Oh yeah: you can take your glove, but leave the draft pick.”

Next up for Rizzo was filling out the rotation. A few weeks back, the guess here was the role of the fifth starter would be filled by an innings eater on a short-term contract…¬†Ahem.

Since Rizzo managed to save, oh, about $40M on the Span trade, he put $13M of that toward the signing of Dan Haren, who is a major upgrade over Edwin Jackson. While Jackson was serviceable in 2012, it would have been a surprise to see him finally harness his immense talent into top of the rotation results. The signing of Haren carries considerable injury risk, but for a few million, the upside is enormous: if Haren is even a few ticks closer to his 2011 form than his 2012 output, the Nationals should have the best rotation in baseball.

Rizzo still has a lot of work to do with his bullpen, but if there’s one piece of a team that can be built on the fly with low-priced options, this is the spot. For every Brandon League, there is an Ernesto Frieri.

Six months from now, there are going to be a handful of under-performing teams wondering why they are paying $8M to a light-hitting shortstop when their bullpen is in shambles and the budget is busted. Thankfully, the Nationals will not be one of those teams.

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