MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 28: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches during a game against the Florida Marlins at Sun Life Stadium on September 28, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The Washington Nationals looked into Cliff Lee last winter. How seriously? Jayson Werth reportedly talked to his former Philadelphia Phillies teammate about signing somewhere together. But when Werth signed in D.C. and Lee inked a deal to return to the city of Brotherly Love, the Nats moved on to one of the other two players they were later revealed to have targeted in their attempts to add a top-of-the-rotation arm to their pitching staff.
Then-29-year-old Rockies' lefty Jorge De La Rosa turned down what was rumored to be a 3-year/$30-33 million dollar offer from the Nats to return to Colorado for less money in the first week of December 2010, then Lee signed with the Phillies on the 15th and four days later reports emerged which said Zack Greinke had used his partial no-trade clause to block a potential trade from Kansas City to the nation's capital in a deal which Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell wrote in a chat this past October would have sent one of three top prospects (Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen or Danny Espinosa), "... plus a [Roger] Bernadina and perhaps a catcher (not [Wilson] Ramos)," to the Royals.
"The Nats and Royals never got anywhere close to picking the actual Nats players in the trade," the WaPost writer noted. Greinke, it was later learned, could have had a 5-year/$90 million dollar extension with Washington, but he blocked the trade and was later deal to Milwaukee.
"The Nats stood on their heads for days trying to convince," Greinke to come to the nation's capital," Mr. Boswell later wrote in an article on Adam LaRoche signing with Washington. Mr. Boswell's colleague at the Washington Post, Dave Sheinin, talked to Greinke several months later for an article entitled, "Desire to win now kept Greinke from joining Nationals", in which he revealed that "high-ranking" Nationals officials, including owner Theodore Lerner, had met with the former Cy Young Award-winner in a, "... a clandestine meeting... in Orlando during baseball’s winter meetings."
"They convinced me they were really trying, and I believe them," Greinke told the Washington Post's Mr. Sheinin, but the point in getting out of Kansas was to go somewhere he could win and he didn't see the Nationals as being ready right now, and thought it would be less likely after they dealt the players it would take to acquire him. "I respect everything about the Nationals," the pitcher said, "And I’m not a guy who goes around saying that about every team." Washington would go on to win 80 games and finish the 2011 season third in the NL East. Greinke would make his first playoff appearance with the Brewers seven years after he'd debuted with Kansas City.
How involved the Nationals ever got in talks with Carl Pavano or trade discussions with the Rays for Matt Garza is unclear, but Pavano eventually signed on to return to Minnesota and Garza was dealt to the Cubs, effectively ending the Nats' search for a top-of-the-rotation arm.
The Nats' GM entered the pitching market knowing how hard it would be to find a starter. Rizzo told Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore in November 2010 article entitled, "The Nationals' search for a top starter won't be easy", that though the Nationals wanted to add an arm and would explore "every avenue," ultimately with the high price in cash or prospects it would take, he said, "'... if we have to wait until  to obtain it, and Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann become that 1 and 2 and supplement it in 2012,'" then that's what they'd do.
"'It shows the difficulty of trying to build something,'" Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell quoted Rizzo saying after the Greinke deal failed to materialize, "'The only thing that convinces players to come is winning. It's the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?'" The Nationals aimed high last winter, signing Werth and trying to convince De La Rosa and Greinke to join the outfielder in the nation's capital. "'The Nationals got Jayson Werth, and if they got me to come there, then free agents and other players start thinking, ‘Hey, Washington’s getting some players,’" Greinke told the Washington Post's Dave Sheinin, "'I think that was a big reason they wanted me — to convince other players to come.'"
Before the Nationals lost out on their top pitching target this winter, the Nats traveled to the St. Louis home of left-hander Mark Buehrle and made a pitch to the 32-year-old starter they thought had sold the former White Sox' draft pick on the idea of pitching in the nation's capital. Rizzo told reporters, including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak, who quoted Rizzo in an article entitled, "Nationals among Buehrle's final five -- and GM Mike Rizzo's impressions after their meeting", that after another ten game improvement this season, with Washington thought to be on the brink of making their first run at a postseason appearance, he was confident in what they were selling and no longer felt the need to, "... apologize for not being very good and that we're rebuilding."
The Nationals made what was reportedly a 3-year/$39M dollar offer to Buehrle, who instead chose to sign with the Miami Marlins for 4-years/$58 million. Washington was unwilling to go to a fourth year, which reporters had suggested from the start might be the difference in getting a deal done with the veteran starter. Both Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore and CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman quoted the Marlins' new left-hander from an MLB Network appearance saying, "'I appreciate everything [Rizzo] and the Nationals had to offer. It just came down to comfort level.'"
In an appearance on MLB Network Radio on the night Buehrle's deal with the Fish was announced, Rizzo told reporters the Nationals would have to move on with their plans for the Winter. "We're going to have to move on," Rizzo said, "We have secondary plans in place and like I said, we like the rotation that we have. It's very young, but it's very deep and talented. So, we'll have to see where we're at and corral the troops and see where we go from here."
"We've got several different options that we're exploring, some free agent, some via the trade routes and some international options," Rizzo explained as the Winter Meetings in Dallas wound down, "so we're still open for business and we're going to keep an open mind and see what fits for us." Buehrle turned the Nats down. (This year's De La Rosa?) C.J. Wilson was apparently not a seriously-considered option. (Cliff Lee?)
Roy Oswalt remains a possibility. The Nationals could pursue Yu Darvish, but signing the 25-year-old Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters' right-hander could cost them as much or more than they were willing to offer Zack Greinke, a former Cy Young Award-winner. A trade for Oakland A's lefty Gio Gonzalez would likely cost the Nats the kind major league-ready prospects Rizzo told NatsInsider's Mark Zuckerman last week he would rather not trade. Entering the season with the pitchers the Nats already have is a risk, Strasburg's on an innings-limit, Zimmermann's in just his second full-season, Chien-Ming Wang's two years removed from a full season and Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock are as yet unproven at the Major League level. The Nats have clearly stated that they want to add a starter to the mix. Finding one, however, as the Nationals have discovered for the second straight season, is never easy. Will the Nats give Roy Oswalt a multi-year deal? Make a trade for an arm? Spend on Darvish? Or go with what they've got?