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Washington Nationals’ 2018 rotation: What could have been; what it is...

Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo engaged in talks about Jake Arrieta with Scott Boras this winter according to multiple reports, but the free agent ended up signing on in Philadelphia.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo acknowledged before and after former NL Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta signed a 3-year/$75M deal with the Philadelphia Phillies in mid-March, that the Nationals talked to Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras, about the free agent right-hander this winter.

“Like any other really good player in the free agent market,” Rizzo told ESPN’s Buster Olney in an interview the day Arrieta’s deal with the Phillies was announced.

“We certainly monitored his market. We were in conversations. We found early on in the process that the numbers didn’t fit at this time, for this particular player, and for this particular need, so when he signed with Philadelphia we hadn’t been in direct talks for a while, but he’s a terrific pitcher and the Phillies just got better.”

Rizzo and Co. in Washington’s front office pivoted quickly, signing another Boras’ client, Jeremy Hellickson, to a significantly less expensive deal that pays the 31-year-old right-hander $2M in the majors with the possibility of earning an additional $4M in bonuses.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Good as Arrieta has been with the Phillies (3-1, 2.59 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 14 walks (3.04 BB/9), 27 Ks (5.83 K/9), .200/.270/.301 line against in seven starts and 41 23 IP,) Hellickson has performed well in his role as a fifth starter in the Nationals’ rotation, (1-0, 2.28 ERA, 2.81 FIP, five walks (1.38 BB/9), 26 Ks (7.16 K/9), and a .198/.233/.322 line against in six starts and 32 23 IP), at a fraction of the cost.

According to a report by FRS Baseball’s Jon Heyman this weekend, however, the Nationals considered a significant investment in Arrieta at some point before he chose their NL East rivals.

“This went under the radar at the time,” Heyman wrote, “but the Nats made a significant try late this winter for Jake Arrieta. Sources suggest they floated a high-AAV deal.”

Boras, “... denied any ‘official offer’ was made,” Heyman noted, but, he added, “... it’s pretty clear they had keen interest.

“As one rival exec put it, ‘That would have been some postseason rotation.’”

The Nationals turned to Hellickson, Heyman continued, because they, “were worried about their depth of starters going into the year if anyone faltered,” (which A.J. Cole did), but they’ve gotten solid starts from Hellickson thus far, and both top prospect Erick Fedde and a resurgent Austin Voth have Rizzo and Co. more confident about the depth these days.

“We really like our five in the big leagues. We like our depth in the minor leagues. Voth and Fedde are throwing extremely well. They’re the next guys up as starters, and I like the way our five guys are performing,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies last week.

With the rotation they do have, the Nationals have the National League’s lowest ERA (2.91), lowest FIP (3.15), the lowest BAA (.208), lowest opponents’ BABIP (.270, tied), the lowest BB% (6.9%), the highest K% (28.1%), second-lowest HR/9 (0.91 HR/9), the lowest WHIP (1.04), and second-highest LOB% (78.5%).

[ed. note - “As mentioned below (and in most of the other articles we wrote on the rumored interest in Arrieta on the Nationals’ part), the Chicago Cubs made a 1-year/$17.4M qualifying offer to Arrieta this winter, which he turned down before becoming a free agent, so, as MLB Trade Rumors noted, if any of the five teams (Detroit, the LA Dodgers, NYY, San Francisco, and Washington) that paid a competitive balance tax last season signed Arrieta (or any free agent who received a qualifying offer), they would have had to forfeit their ‘ ... second-highest and fifth-highest pick in the 2018 draft, and would have lost $1M in International Signing Bonus pool money.’

“Also, the Nationals, who were slightly over the $197M competitive balance tax threshold for 2018 already, by most estimations, and paid a 20% tax on overages last season, would/will pay a 30% tax this season for going over again, which likely factored into their thinking when it came to any free agents this winter.”]