Gio Gonzalez goes for the Cy Young; Nationals will have stiff competition in adding another starter

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The Nationals have swept the National League’s first two major awards, and with Gio Gonzalez a finalist for tonight’s Cy Young announcement, they have a chance to go three for three. It is not a very good chance, though. Gonzalez had a season worthy of merit, but knuckleballer R.A. Dickey seems like the clear favorite to win over Gonzalez and the third finalist, Clayton Kershaw.

Gonzalez led the majors with 21 wins. He allowed only 0.4 home runs per nine innings and struck out 9.3 batters per nine, both best in the National League. Gonzalez held opponents to a .206 batting average, compared to Dickey’s .226 and Kershaw’s .210.

But Dickey and Kershaw both posted lower ERAs than Gonzalez while throwing far more innings. Kershaw led the NL with a 2.53 ERA in 227 2/3 innings. Dickey followed him with a 2.73 in 233 1/3 innings. Gonzalez posted a 2.89 ERA over 199 1/3 innings. And despite throwing fewer innings, Gonzalez walked more hitters than both Dickey and Kershaw. Gonzalez was frequently dominant, but he couldn’t match the sheer volume of the other two finalists. He deserves consideration, but he probably will not win the award.

The Nationals acquired Gonzalez last season by sending four prospects to the Oakland A’s, and they may have to become creative again this year. General Manager Mike Rizzo remains on the hunt for a fifth starting pitcher to replace Edwin Jackson. Rizzo has not ruled out any specific type of starter from his wish list, but as the offseason develops the Nationals may find an expensive, competitive market for starters.

The Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, Rangers and Dodgers have joined the Nationals in stating their desire or need to add at least one starting pitcher. There you have six of the potentially highest-spending teams in baseball, at a moment in time when the sport appears to be flush with cash. The market for pitching could hardly be more robust.

Look at the available starting pitching, though, and there aren’t enough high-impact pitchers to fill all those chairs when the music stops. The top tier of free agent starting pitchers seems to be Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez and Kyle Lohse. Dan Haren, Brandon McCarthy, Ryan Dempster, Hiroki Kuroda and Edwin Jackson fill out the next tier.

After that, the crop starts to look thin. But teams in the middle and at the bottom of baseball’s financial spectrum in need of pitching, like the Cubs, Padres, Brewers and Royals will start to bid up the middle of the free agent pitching pool.

It is a good time to be a free agent starter, or a team like the Rays dealing from starting pitching depth. The Blue Jays helped that cause last night, trading for Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle as the Marlins dumped any player making considerable money from their roster. While staking their claim as a contender, the Jays removed two possible targets from the market.

And so, as the Nationals scour their options for a fifth starter, they will have stiff competition. Greinke still seems plausible, but a long shot – it would be quite a gamble for the Nationals to commit more than $100 million to a starter when they are in position to try to lock up Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg in the next three seasons.

Sanchez matches up close to Greinke in raw numbers if not name recognition, but he also may fetch more money than anyone expected at the start of the offseason. Lohse, 34, is a Scott Boras client and could command around $60 million over four years. The Nationals see him as a pitcher who will age well, but that’s still a lot of cash to give a pitcher who will be approaching 40 by the time his contract runs out.

At this point, the Nationals seem to still be sorting through their options. Once they hone in on more specific targets, they may find more competition than they would like.

One other note on Jackson: Many people around baseball believe the Nationals made a miscalculation when they chose not to offer Jackson a one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer, which would have ensured them a compensatory draft pick in next year’s draft when Jackson signed elsewhere.

Rizzo preferred other options on the free agent market to Jackson and did not want to risk Jackson accepting the offer. No one faulted him for the opinion he could upgrade over Jackson. But the majority opinion in baseball is Jackson would have declined the qualifying offer. Jackson, after all, fired agent Scott Boras this season after signing a one-year deal last winter. It seems safe to presume he would not have been interested in another one-year deal. And so the Nationals passed up the chance at a pick between the first and second rounds, a highly valuable commodity.

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