The Nationals seemingly removed themselves from the high end of the starting pitching market way back at the winter meetings, when they rapidly pursued and signed veteran Dan Haren to a one-year, $13 million deal. But their rotation calculus changed with the news that Gio Gonzalez may face a 50-game suspension for his reported ties to the Biogenesis clinic, forcing them to consider contingencies in the event they lose their best left-hander for two months.
In the event Gonzalez receives a suspension, or even to prepare for the possibility, the Nationals may try to swoop in and sign free agent right-hander Kyle Lohse, who went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA for the Cardinals last year. Lohse, 34, is represented by Scott Boras, with whom the Nationals share a strong relationship.
Normally teams looking for available, top-shelf starters as pitchers and catchers report have limited or no options. But the circumstances of this offseason, the first in the new draft-pick compensation system, have kept Lohse, one of the best free agent starters, from signing. Lohse would be an expensive luxury more than a necessity, but he may be the right fit for a World Series contender that could ill afford losing one of its best starters for two months.
The Nationals liked Lohse early in the winter, but they never seriously pursued him. Lohse had declined the Cardinals’ qualifying offer, and the Nationals were averse to giving up their first-round draft pick to sign him.
Now, though, the Nationals no longer face that hurdle — they already forfeited their first-round pick, No. 29 overall, when they signed closer Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal in January.
There would still be obstacles to the Nationals’ signing Lohse. He may simply prove to be too expensive for the Nationals, especially considering they would, on paper, need him only for about 10 starts. They already have an opening payroll sitting at over $110 million. The Nationals may also still be waiting to learn Gonzalez’s fate before Lohse chooses his 2013 team, which would require a potential clogging of their rotation.
Still, the Nationals in the past have never shied from acquiring a stockpile at one position and then figuring out the rest later — signing Soriano with Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard already in the fold would be one example. They have also built a consensus World Series favorite, and adding a top talent like Lohse may be the quickest way to offset the possible temporary loss of Gonzalez.
The Nationals have also been intent on adding depth to their rotation to protect against attrition, which they completely avoided last season aside from the voluntary shutdown of Stephen Strasburg. Lohse, again, would be an expensive luxury more than necessity in that regard, but his presence would surely protect the Nationals in the event of an injury.
If suspended, Gonzalez would be eligible to return May 28. If the Nationals added Lohse and found too much of a logjam, they would have the option of trading a newly signed free agent (meaning either Haren or Lohse in this hypothetical) on June 1. They could trade one before if the player consented to the trade.
The Nationals continue to monitor retired right-hander Javier Vazquez, whom they have scouted intently as he mulls a comeback. Vazquez would sign for less money than Lohse and may make more sense as a contingency. Vazquez plans to decide on his comeback after he pitches for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
There are plenty of moving parts. The Nationals’ signing Lohse may seem improbable at this point. But it seemed improbable for them to sign Edwin Jackson late last offseason, and it seemed improbable for them to add Soriano this winter. Boras has a free agent without a home, the Nationals have a possible need, and we have seen before how that often ends.