Nationals MLB Winter Meetings Preview: Left-Handed Reliever(s), Bench Help On Wish List

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals are in the market for a left-handed reliever or two with Scott Downs, Eric O'Flaherty, J.P. Howell and others mentioned as targets, but there isn't much chatter about where the Nats will look for bench help, the other stated need as they head to the Winter Meetings.

Left-handed reliever J.P. Howell was still a free agent at this point last winter, a month away from agreeing to the 1-year/$2.85M deal he eventually signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, when he talked to nationals.com writer Bill Ladson about the possibility of joining the Davey Johnson-led Washington Nationals in the nation's capital.

"'I love [the Nationals'] style, and they are absolutely loaded,'" Howell told MLB.com's Nats beat reporter:

"'They have so much talent. They are championship contenders. ... They are truly a heavyweight. Personally speaking, I would be a great fit. I think the leader on that team, Jayson Werth, is a great guy. I know Davey Johnson from the [World Baseball Classic]. It was a pleasure to be around a guy like that. ... If I could fit on the ride, that would be amazing."

The Nats missed out on Howell. Ten days after the lefty signed with Los Angeles, the Nationals announced that they had signed Rafael Soriano, taking the right-handed reliever off the FA market with a 2-year/$28M deal that the now-former Nats' skipper would later say guaranteed that Washington would have just one left-handed reliever in their Opening Day bullpen.

"With the addition of Soriano, the addition of a right-handed, closer-type, really, and with the loss of some other left-handers that were here last year, it kind of boils down to, you know, just down to one left-hander in the pen." - Davey Johnson on Nats' bullpen last Spring

"If you look at the guys that were successful up here last year," Johnson told reporters last spring, "and with the addition of Soriano, the addition of a right-handed, closer-type, really, and with the loss of some other left-handers that were here last year, it kind of boils down to, you know, just down to one left-hander in the pen. I think that's kind of obvious. It was obvious from the day we signed Soriano. And I'm comfortable with the guys that we had out there. I mean, when you have four guys that have closed, obviously they're pretty comfortable against left-handers, so, that's not a big issue."

Zach Duke was the one lefty. Bill Bray was having issues with his mechanics. Ian Krol came up and helped out and so did Fernando Abad and Xavier Cedeno. What was considered a weakness when the 2013 season started, however, did hurt the team early last season and they entered this offseason once again looking for left-handed help in the bullpen.

"We're fortunate there is a handful of really good, effective left-handed relievers in the business that are available right now." - Mike Rizzo on MLB Network Radio this week

MLB Network Radio host Jim Bowden asked Nats' GM Mike Rizzo directly this week if Howell was a target again this winter. "Well, I think one of the things that we're trying to do is upgrade our bullpen," Rizzo said. "We'd like to tweak that. Left-handed reliever is a thing that we will certainly be looking into. We're fortunate there is a handful of really good, effective left-handed relievers in the business that are available right now."

Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore reported yesterday that the Nationals have interest in left-hander Eric O'Flaherty, whose 2014 season will start a little late as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. The WaPost reporter also added that the Nats, "..,shown interest in Boone Logan, Scott Downs, J.P. Howell and Oliver Perez, according to a [person] familiar with the situation."

MLB.com's Bill Ladson was first to report on the interest in Downs, and he wrote today in a preview of the Winter Meetings that in addition to the former Angel and Braves' reliever, the Nats were interested in, "...Oliver Perez and J.P. Howell, but the team was not close to signing any of those players."

Rizzo has talked openly about wanting to add to the bench too, telling reporters this week after the deal that brought Doug Fister over from Detroit that the bullpen and bench were the focus now that he'd added a starter. Do the Nats need another outfielder in addition to Tyler Moore and Scott Hairston? Do they need a right-handed option at first, if they're not 100% confident in Moore's ability to back up Adam LaRoche or possibly replace him should there be any issues at first base?

Can the Nationals trust that Danny Espinosa can fill the utility role? Defensively, sure. But at the plate? Do either Corey Brown or Jeff Kobernus figure in the plans? Do either of them finally get a shot? What about that backup catcher? Is Rizzo really comfortable with Jhonatan Solano or Sandy Leon playing regularly if anything happens to Wilson Ramos, who has dealt with injury issues in the past?

The bullpen options are fairly clear. Anyone from the left side who's still out there? Will Rizzo find a deal for a left-handed reliever if the free agent options don't work out? Any bench bats out there the Nationals should rush to sign?

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