WASHINGTON -- On paper, it appears that the Nationals don't need to make many changes. The starting eight position players are set, and the pitching staff is one of the best in baseball.
However, the Nationals are going to be the talk of the Winter Meetings because they have five players -- Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, Tyler Clippard and Denard Span -- who could be free agents after the 2015 season. There is already talk that general manager Mike Rizzo is willing to listen to offers for Zimmermann and Fister.
Having been quiet so far, the Nats are looking for a second baseman, some players off the bench and bullpen help while they gauge the likelihood of signing their top players to extensions.
Here is a quick glance at the Nationals' situation heading into this year's Winter Meetings in San Diego:
Bullpen: The Nationals need to replace Rafael Soriano, who never mastered the closer's role during his two seasons with the club, but they aren't expected to seek out a closer, with Drew Storen likely to be their choice. During the final month of the 2014 season, Storen saved 10 games without allowing a run. The Nats will instead look for a reliever who could possibly join Clippard in the setup role.
Bench: The Nationals haven't had a productive bench since 2012. This past season, pinch-hitters hit .144, and the club is looking for some pop. Kevin Frandsen, Danny Espinosa, Nate McLouth and Jose Lobaton are the holdovers, and of the four, Frandsen was the most consistent hitter off the bench. McLouth missed the final two months of the season because of a shoulder injury, but he is expected to be ready for Spring Training. The Nats already signed Emmanuel Burriss to a Minor League deal in an effort to add speed.
Second base:Asdrubal Cabrera, who played every day for Washington over the final two months of the season, is not expected to be back. So the Nationals are now looking at Plan B. They still believe in Espinosa, who is an outstanding defender, but he has struggled offensively. The Nats have approached the switch-hitting Espinosa about the possibility of hitting right-handed exclusively. If that happens, Espinosa could find himself in a platoon situation.
If the Nationals look for an everyday second baseman, they may consider Jed Lowrie, who is a shortstop by trade but has played 58 games at second base during his career. Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick, who will be in the last year of his contract, could also be an option. He can drive in runs, has occasional power and is above average defensively.
Who they can trade if necessary
Clippard: A free agent after the season, the right-hander said that he wants to become a closer in the future, but that likely won't happen in Washington.
Zimmermann: At the General Managers Meetings, Rizzo denied that he was trying to trade Zimmermann to the Cubs, but he is reportedly open to listening to offers. It is certain that Rizzo will ask for much in return before relinquishing his top-of-the-rotation starter, who will be a free agent after the season.
Fister: Like Zimmermann, trading Fister depends on whether they can work out an extension. Rizzo traded three young players to the Tigers for Fister before last year's Winter Meetings started, and he would probably ask for a lot more for the right-hander. If Zimmermann or Fister are traded, look for A.J. Cole or Blake Treinen to get a shot at the rotation.
The Nationals' top 10 prospects as ranked by MLB.com are right-hander Lucas Giolito, right-hander Cole, outfielder Michael Taylor, right-hander Erick Fedde, outfielder Steven Souza, first baseman Matthew Skole, outfielder Brian Goodwin, third baseman Drew Ward, right-hander Austin Voth and catcher Jakson Reetz.
Of the 10, Souza and Taylor have tasted life in the big leagues, and Souza could start the season with the Major League club as a power threat off the bench. Taylor is considered the center fielder of the future, but he most likely will start the season with Triple-A Syracuse, where he will look to cut down on his strikeouts.
Giolito has the potential to be a late-season callup in 2015 after going 10-2 with a 2.20 ERA for Class A Hagerstown in 2014. Cole was recently put on the 40-man roster after going a combined 13-3 with a 3.16 ERA for Double-A Harrisburg and Syracuse.
Rule 5 Draft
The Nationals' 40-man roster is full, so they would have to remove a player if they are to be active in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. Last year, the Nats gained two players in the Triple-A phase, selecting Reds outfielder Theodis Bowe and Mets right-hander Martires Arias. Bowe ended up leaving baseball and is now pursuing a football career, while Arias was released. The Nationals lost catcher Adrian Nieto to the White Sox in the Major League phase, and he stayed with Chicago the entire season.
Big contracts they might unload
With five major players who could be free agents after the 2015 season, unloading money is not the issue. It will be interesting to see if the Nats can sign them to extensions.
The Nationals don't like to talk about payroll, but according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, Washington spent around $136 million in 2014. The Nats are expected to be postseason contenders again in '15, and they are likely to spend the same amount.