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Posted at 11:59 AM ET, 09/15/2011

With Chris Carpenter signing, one more free agent starter goes off the board

Where can a team with money to spend and a need for a front-line starting pitcher turn for help? Certainly not to the free agent market, which these days is as barren and picked-over as the toilet paper aisle the day before a hurricane. When it comes to pitching, everyone in baseball is a hoarder.

(Justin K. Aller - GETTY IMAGES)
Yet another enticing arm came off the market this week when the St. Louis Cardinals signed veteran Chris Carpenter to a two-year $21 million extension. With the opening of the market less than two months away, the head of the class is Texas Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson, Chicago White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle and Cardinals right-hander Edwin Jackson. (This assumes CC Sabathia re-ups with the Yankees, and the Phillies bring back Roy Oswalt.)

Ah, but what could have been. Here is a partial list of pitchers who would have been free agents this winter had they not signed long-term deals with their current clubs: Josh Johnson, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Ervin Santana and Matt Cain. (In future free-agent classes, it’s the same thing; among those who would be reaching free agency after the 2012 season, except for the long-term deals they signed, are Jon Lester, Jered Weaver and James Shields.)

Meantime, the list of deep-pocketed teams who could be looking for a starter this winter might include the Yankees, Rangers, Cubs, White Sox, Twins and Nationals.

That’s right — we’ve got the Nationals on that list. Remember that $100 million they offered Zack Greinke last winter — this was on top of the Jayson Werth signing, mind you — to waive his no-trade clause and come to D.C.? Maybe some of that money went to fund the team’s epic draft-day splurge, but the bulk of it is presumably still sitting there in Ted Lerner’s bank account waiting to be spent, now that the Nationals have put much of the foundation in place to be contenders in the next few years.

And as nice as it sounds to field a completely homegrown rotation, imagine a solid, front-line veteran — we’ree not talking Jason Marquis or Livan Hernandez here — slotting in between the Stephen Strasburg/Jordan Zimmermann front end and the John Lannan/Brad Peacock/Ross Detwiler/Tom Milone back end. (And remember, with the rate-of-attrition of pitchers, you need eight to 10 starters to carry you through a season.) Carpenter, as a matter of fact, would have been perfect as a two- or three-year veteran bridge until the next wave of Nationals pitching prospects (Sammy Solis, Robbie Ray, A.J. Cole, Matt Purke, et al.) begins to arrive.

But for the Nationals, or anyone else, to make a serious upgrade they’re going to have to be creative — such as the stealth play Washington made for a sign-and-trade with Greinke last winter. Otherwise, they’re going to have to make do with what they already have — which, really, might not be so bad after all.

By  |  11:59 AM ET, 09/15/2011

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