What the Nationals’ search for a starter tells us about them

December 10, 2012

Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

The way this winter has unfolded, especially two moves over the weekend, reveals that the Nationals believe in what they are doing and that success has not changed their perspective. Before they won 98 games, they planned to build with the players they drafted and developed rather than luring big-ticket veteran free agents. After they have won 98 games, they are showing they will do the very same thing.

The Nationals, like pretty much any team would, had Zack Greinke and James Shields rated as the two best pitching talents who were either free agents or obviously available in a trade. On Saturday night, Greinke signed a six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers, who are spewing cash like a broken slot machine. Last night, the Royals traded for Shields and swing man Wade Davis for a minor league haul that included power-hitting outfielder Wil Myers and flame-throwing right-hander Jake Odorizzi, both widely regarded as top-50 prospects.

The Nationals would have loved to add either Greinke or Shields — either would have given them, on paper, the hands-down best rotation in baseball. They considered the prices to acquire either, shrugged and moved on to Dan Haren, betting with a one-year, $13 million deal that he’ll bounce back from the physical and mechanical issues that led to his relative down season in 2012.

In passing on Greinke, the Nationals kept their financial powder dry for down the road, another signal they intend to do everything they can to keep their young nucleus intact. It will take serious money for that to happen, to make sure a healthy Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg play their entire primes in the nation’s capital. The Nationals, especially depending on the result of their interminable negotiations over MASN, could develop the financial might to add a $100 million free agent and still keep enough in reserve to take care of their young stars, who also include Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa, Ross Detwiler, etc.

In not dealing for Shields, the Nationals proved they’re not willing to decimate their farm system for a quick fix. If the Rays wanted a package of players specifically like the one the Royals gave up, then the Nationals could not have matched. For them, it would have been akin to trading Anthony Rendon and … well, after they gave up Alex Meyer for Denard Span, the Nationals don’t really have any pitching prospects who, in the world of prospect lists, compare to Odorizzi. The Nationals might have considered including Rendon in a deal for David Price, but not James Shields.

Now, that is not to say the Nationals are unwilling to use their prospects for major league help. They’ve shipped out a major league catcher in Derek Norris and four top pitching prospects the past two winters to acquire Gio Gonzalez and Denard Span. Both trades are instructive, showing the kind of player General Manager Mike Rizzo is willing to deal top prospects for.

The Nationals control Span’s contractual rights for three seasons at a total cost of of $20.25 million, with $9 million of that a team option for 2015. Gonzalez came with four years of team control, and Rizzo immediately signed him to an extension that could keep him in Washington through 2018. Span is 28, and Gonzalez is 27. The appeal of prospects is their youth and many seasons of team control. Rizzo, we have seen, will deal them for players that have the same qualities. He considers not just the quality of the players, but more so the seasons of team control they bring with them. The Nationals would have controlled Shields’s contractually for only two years, making him the kind of player Rizzo wouldn’t part with top minor league talent for.

(An aside: It seems the commentariat has come out strongly against the Royals’ trade. I understand the argument and agree they gave up a whole lot, but the vitriolic strength of the negative reaction strikes me as, to borrow a phrase from New York Daily News baseball writer Andy Martino, fake smart. Prospects are great until they aren’t. James Shields is James Shields. Let’s not forget that.)

Every offseason, we learn a little more about how Rizzo runs the baseball operations of the Nationals. This winter, we learned — or maybe re-learned — that he is willing to dip into his most prized possessions, his prospects, and turn them into win-now major league talent. But he’s only willing to do it if those win-now players help them win later, too.

And if not, well, Dan Haren is not a bad alternative.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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Adam Kilgore · December 7, 2012