It's certainly been an active offseason so far for the Nats, and the likelihood is that they're going to continue to pop up in just about any rumor involving a starting pitcher on the market. There are many of us (myself included) who would hate to see the Nats enter Spring Training with a similar grouping of fifth starter and AAAA types to the group that we've seen the past few seasons. While there's certainly a difference in the quality of the starting pitching that appears to be available at this point, there also figures to be a significant difference in the pricetag (be it in terms of players traded or money spent) that will be necessary to acquire said players. Because of this, we need to focus not only on what the Nats would be acquiring, but whether the price would be too high or not.
Let's start by listing some of the options that appear to be available on the current market: We'll just go alphabetically for starters:
Other potentially less attractive options (for one reason or another) are out there who could possibly help as well, such as:
Alright. We're going with eight names, three of whom (Carmona, Garza, and Greinke) are currently under contract with another team and would require a cost in personnel to acquire. Let's examine what the Nats should try to do.
Since arguably the three top pitchers available are players that would require a trade to acquire, we should probably first look at what the Nats should try to accomplish in adding a pitcher. Most feel that the Nats need to add an ace starting pitcher, which is what their goal was in pursuing Cliff Lee. I don't think that there were very many of us who felt the club had much of a shot to acquire Lee, so I don't think that many of us are too disappointed. Since Lee was the only real "ace" on the free agent market, the question is whether or not the Nats truly need to go all in to acquire one. My answer is a resounding "No!"
Considering the current talent in the Nationals organization, the current pursuit of a starter in the market should have one basic goal in mind:
Any move that the Nationals make which trades away Zimmermann is counterproductive at this point. The on-field improvement last year was noticeable as they jumped from 59 wins (2008 and 2009) to 69 wins. There's plenty of young talent at the big league level that figures to continue to improve, such as Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, and even FoF Ryan Zimmerman, who is still just creeping up on a typical ballplayers' prime. The addition of Jayson Werth in Adam Dunn's place should provide similar offensive production at a fraction of the defensive cost. This team is getting better, and making a real push at .500 this season with another solid move or two isn't out of the question. Making a real push at contention, on the other hand, doesn't look like something that we can hope for in 2011. Upgrading a current middle of the rotation starter (with the upside to be more) such as Zimmermann and replacing him with a more established (and expensive) ace while basically creating a hole where Zimmermann should be makes no sense.
Yes... My statement above pretty much eliminates the pursuit of the top option on the list, but let's take a look anyway, shall we?
Zack Greinke - There are ups and downs with many young pitchers, and Greinke certainly had his fair share of each of them early in his career. Once hailed as the next Greg Maddux, Greinke does have outstanding control, having averaged just 2.27 BB/9 IP throughout his career. What is not Maddux-like is his velocity, as he's averaged 93+ MPH on his fastball four years running. He brings huge strikeout production to the table, has won a Cy Young award, and has averaged 5.25 WAR since returning to the big leagues full-time in 2007 after a bout with social anxiety disorder. In spite of the risk the social anxiety entails, Greinke is a legitimate ace.
The Cost - The Royals may boast the most loaded farm system in all of baseball right now, with some really good young pitching (John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy), stars in the making at both corner infield spots (Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas), and a brilliant hitting prospect behind the plate who doesn't figure to stick there defensively (Wil Myers). They're a little soft in the middle, and either Danny Espinosa or Ian Desmond could be one cornerstone piece of a deal. They might also like to bolster their long-term options behind the plate with a player more likely to stay there defensively (Derek Norris or Wilson Ramos), and they'd certainly want a big league starter in return (Jordan Zimmermann). The last one is an absolute dealbreaker, as it makes acquiring Greinke counterproductive. Financially, Greinke is signed for the next two years at $13.5 million per season.
Matt Garza - He's a clear notch below Greinke in terms of both consistency and productivity. In terms of season-long production, Garza has looked extremely consistent the past few years (ERA - 3.69, 3.90, 3.95, 3.91... FIP - 4.18, 4.14, 4.17, 4.42), but he's been very streaky within those seasons. His strikeout rate has always been fairly strong (7.10/9 IP in his career), but fluctuates a bit more from year to year. While walks aren't a big problem for him, Garza isn't nearly as strong as Greinke here (3.10 BB/9). If you're one who likes to number starters, Garza is more of a #2/#3 type, while Greinke is a #1. He'd be a terrific addition, though he wouldn't be the "ace" that Rizzo claims he wanted to add.
The Cost - Like Greinke, Garza is under another club's control right now, though he technically hasn't signed a contract. Garza is arbitration eligible through the 2013 season, meaning any team that acquires him instead of Greinke will acquire an extra year of club control. Though not the caliber of Greinke, the fact that he comes cheaper financially and at a longer term makes him about as attractive a trade chip.
The Rays' needs are a bit harder to assess, though they may actually fit what the Nats would be willing (and/or not insane) to give up. Given that they're shopping Garza because they have perhaps a little too much depth in big league starting pitching (Is there such a thing?), they almost certainly wouldn't ask for Zimmermann as part of the return. Instead, they would probably be focused on bullpen help (I'd hate to give up Storen, or even Clippard, but that's a more acceptable pitching loss) and a bat or two. Given that they dealt Jason Bartlett away, some would be inclined to think that there wasn't a big need for a shortstop, but they'd probably be wrong. Reid Brignac brings a solid enough glove, but hasn't shown much power, speed, or patience at the big league level at the plate. Former #1 pick Tim Beckham hasn't quite hit the development stage Tampa had hoped he would yet. Either Espinosa or (more likely) Ian Desmond would have to be a target, as could Josh Willingham (established right-handed power for a team with designs on contending again in 2011) or Derek Norris (while their system is still loaded, Norris [and probably Ramos] would improve their future behind the plate). They could also use a long-term 1b option, but unless they seem more confident in Chris Marrero than the Nats do, I don't think there's anyihing to work in there. If the Nats go the trade route, Garza is who they should push hardest for.
Carl Pavano - Pavano comes in next on our list ahead of the (supposedly) recently available Fausto Carmona because we know what the Nats would have to give up for him... money, and only money. Pavano disappeared for a few years after the Yankees signed him, but has put together consecutive solid seasons (the first split between Cleveland and Minnesota, and the second just with the Twins) to show that there's still some life in his right arm. Unlike Garza and Greinke (both 27), the Nats would likely be acquiring a player in decline (Pavano will turn 35 in January). The strikeout production is a bit low, but so are the walk totals. Pavano would make for a strong #3 on a contending team, and isn't the ace the Nats have said they're looking to acquire. Still, he's a far better solution than running Luis Atilano out there 25 times, isn't he?
The Cost - Just throwing a number out there. 3 years, $30 million(ish)?
Fausto Carmona - The fact that Carmona is recently being discussed as an option available on the trade market makes me question whether the Indians plan on becoming the new Marlins. Like Garza and Greinke, Carmona is 27. He's not being paid exorbitantly, though, and he's not up for free agency for a couple of years. Unlike the Rays, the Indians do not have six (at least) big league starters ready to pitch in their rotation this season. Then again, they could just be trying to maximize Carmona's value based on the fact that he rebounded nicely in 2010 after having made one of everyone's favorite (movie) Indians' pitchers Rick Vaughn look like a control pitcher in 2008 and 2009. There's upside (read: 19-8, 3.06 ERA, top five Cy Young finish in 2007), but there's an extreme lack of consistency here as well. He's certainly not the ace the Nats want, but whether he's a 3, 4, or a 5 could depend on which Carmona is real.
The Cost - It's harder to gauge, since he's a fairly new name on the market. My best guess is that the Indians would be looking for more young starting pitching (predominantly in the high minors/minimal big league service time), a possible third outfield option to go with Choo and Sizemore (though Brantley has nice potential... someone who could challenge him in the next year or two), bullpen help (not necessarily at closer, as they seem set with Chris Perez), and a middle infielder. In truth, Carmona wouldn't be worth Desmond straight up... he wouldn't be worth Zimmermann straight up... Maybe Clippard and a Michael Burgess type? Anything else would be a massive overpay. The more I think about it, the less attractive he is as an alternative.
Brandon Webb - In the past few seasons, we've seen disappointment from the Chien-Ming Wang signing, the acquisition of Scott Olsen, and.... well... let's forget that Cabrera guy. In short, the Nats' efforts to take a rehab effort on the cheap and turn it into gold (a la Chris Carpenter with the Cardinals... or the aforementioned Carl Pavano with the Indians/Twins) have been an epic fail. In truth, none of those guys were as dominant at their peak as Webb was. There's certainly a lot of risk in taking on a guy who hasn't pitched in two years (save for one start in 2009), but that also means you're getting him at a discount. When Webb last pitched a full season in 2008, he was 22-7 with a 3.30 ERA, a 3.36 FIP, and a 183:65 strikeout to walk ratio. He finished no lower than second in the Cy Young balloting in the last three seasons he pitched, including one Cy Young award in 2006. He's still only 32. Without losing personnel, there's not much downside here.
The Cost - Webb reportedly said he'd be seeking $7.5+ in guarantees last summer. It's hard to imagine that happening, though. The assumption is that he'll sign somewhere in the $4 to $5 million range on a short-term contract with incentives that could kick it into the $10 million range. If the Nats could get him for $5 million or less guaranteed and add incentives to kick it to $10-$12 million with a vesting option, he could be well worth that gamble.
Jeff Francis - Like the Nats, Francis' roots are in Canada. He didn't look spectacular after returning from surgery that cost him all of 2009 last season, though the 29-year-old lefty did finish the campaign with a 3.88 FIP. The velocity never developed as many had hoped it would for Francis, and he's basically stopped throwing his slider since his return. However, he was an established control and command type before his lost year, and the Rockies really just developed too many other options around him to keep him around. He's more of a middle to back end starter, and would probably compare favorably with what we're used to seeing out of John Lannan.
The Cost - Francis is said to be seeking $4 million through free agency. He might be worth it at $2 million.
Brad Penny - Perhaps as talented as anyone on this list, Penny is incosistent and oft-injured. The Cardinals ignored that risk and signed him to a 1 year, $7.5 million contract for 2010, and while he was good when he was healthy....... well, Penny made nine starts before his season ended when he hurt his back (get this) hitting a grand slam.
The Cost - You have to figure that after making just 9 starts last season when teams already shied away largely because of his injury history, Penny figures to take a substantial paycut wherever he lands. I can't imagine him getting more than a $2 or $3 million incentive laden deal. The Nats could do worse, but there's so much risk here.
Kevin Millwood - No, he wasn't very good across the Beltway last year, was he? Since 2006, he's basically been a fourth starter, and his inclusion on this list is really telling as to how bad the Nats options get in the rotation other than Zimmermann (for this season, at least). If there's an example of why the Nats should not deal to upgrade J-Zimm (rather than to give him some help), the fact that they could look at Millwood and think that he'd be a lock for a rotation spot is it.
The Cost - Almost certainly entirely too much. He's a Boras client, and he's likely to get close to $5 million. He'd be nothing more than an innings eater, though he is at least pretty durable.
There are, of course, other options still out there... guys like Erik Bedard, Dave Bush, Jeremy Bonderman, and John Maine. Some of them were non-tendered. Some of them are coming off of injuries and their status is up in the air. I just tried to pick some of the more likely options and/or guys that looked like fits.
So who should the Nats go after from this group? Put me squarely in the camp of Matt Garza, though the idea is that they shouldn't necessarily stop there. In all honesty, acquiring Greinke (which they'd almost certainly have to move J-Zimm to do) wouldn't be a complete step backwards, but it wouldn't be a full step forward either because of what they'd have to give up. Going after Garza would require plenty in terms of personnel, but it wouldn't be likely to create a hole in the spot right behind the hole you're trying to fill. Instead, it would probably require trading personnel at spots where the Nats have a little more depth. Carmona just kind of disinterests me, as he's so inconsistent and it's harder to gauge what the Tribe would want for him.
The likelihood is that if the Nats do acquire one of the three pitchers above via trade, they pull themselves out of the Carl Pavano sweepstakes (which might not be the worst thing in the world... I do think Pavano would be a good addition, though there's a fair amount of risk based on his age and expected career path alone), but I'd urge that they should remain in the market for Webb. The risk in terms of personnel exchanged (none) and financially (mid-level for a proven high-end pitcher coming off of injury) provides the Nats with an opportunity to add a terrific starter at something that figures to be a bit of a bargain. Realistically, if he were to come back and be half the pitcher (in terms of WAR) that he was in the five seasons prior to his injury, the Nats would see a positive return based on the marketplace for even the $7.5 million guaranteed that his supposed asking price was going to be over the summer.
This club isn't an upgrade in the rotation away from contention. It's two starters (if Strasburg were healthy) away from even really considering being in contention. Trade Adam Du.... Get Dan Hud.... Aww. Forget it!