Where do the Nationals stand in their search for a starter?

November 21, 2013

Matt Garza could be on the Nationals’ list of pitching targets. (Paul Beaty / AP)

The Nationals’ search for another starter is multi-faceted, and the plans could even stretch across multiple offseasons. As the Nationals sort through plans to add a starter behind Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, options abound. We don’t know exactly what direction they’re headed, but we do have some clues:

>>> General Manager Mike Rizzo has said he will be reluctant to give up the No. 20 overall pick, and so the crop of pitchers attached to compensation – Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Hiroki Kuroda – will probably fail to entice them.

>>> The Nationals would not put Anthony Rendon – their best trade chip on account of his potential and his ability to hold his own as a rookie – in a package for Tigers ace Max Scherzer because he has only one year remaining before free agency.

>>> As the Nationals headed into the GM Meetings, Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija seemed like a cheaper trade alternative to Price or Scherzer. He would come cheaper, but not by much, according to people familiar with the situation.

The Cubs view Samardzija as a building block and would want top prospects in order to part with him – which for the Nationals would mean Lucas Giolito, plus another prospect or two. In the words of one executive: “Guys they don’t want to talk about.” Unless the acquisition cost for Samardzija changes, it seems doubtful the big right-hander will end up in a Nationals uniform.

>>> Washington expressed interest in neither Tim Hudson nor Josh Johnson, two veterans who just came off the board, according to people familiar with the situation. They have also shown no inclination to bring back Dan Haren.

Given those facts, where does that leave the Nationals’ pursuit of another starter? They could make a run at a big-name free agent. Right-hander Matt Garza, whom the Nationals have shown interest in as a trade target in recent seasons, would not even cost a compensatory draft pick. (So far they have been in touch with Ricky Nolasco, another free agent who could not be given a qualifying offer because of a midseason trade.)

They could try to replicate their Gio Gonzalez trade and deal for a starter with several seasons of team control. They could implode their farm system in an effort to trade for David Price or Scherzer. They could even stand pat and let their young arms compete for the No. 5 rotation spot, although given the importance of depth and their championship aims, that wouldn’t be advisable.

A trade may prove too difficult to pull off. Without giving up Rendon, they probably aren’t getting Scherzer. The Nationals may consider Rendon as part of a package for Price, but rival teams in pursuit of Price would likely be able to outbid the Nationals’ offer for Price. And now Samardzija seems to be out of their price range.

If the Nationals cannot pull of a trade and the free agency market seems thin, what then? Scherzer, the American League Cy Young winner, could play a role in the Nationals’ offseason starting rotation plans even if they do not trade for him.

Rather than trying to acquire him now in a blockbuster with the Tigers, the Nationals could add pitching this winter at terms that will not affect a possible pursuit of Scherzer next winter in free agency, when all it would take to land him would be money and, presumably, a draft pick. In lieu of making a big splash with a trade now, the Nationals could keep their powder dry and make one next year in free agency.

Rizzo drafted Scherzer, who will turn 30 in July, in the first round in 2006, his final season as Arizona’s scouting director. The Nationals have coveted him for a while – but then what team wouldn’t like a pitcher with Scherzer’s swing-and-miss stuff and competitive drive? The Nationals also have a close relationship with Scott Boras, Scherzer’s agent.

In the event the Nationals hold off in making a big move this winter, they could try for a reliable, stop-gap kind of fourth or fifth starter. Acquiring a veteran on a short-term deal would not be a new strategy for the Nationals. Leading into 2012, they tried to sign Mark Buehrle and offered him a three-year deal. In 2012, Edwin Jackson fell to them on a one-year deal. Last offseason, they added Haren on a one-year pact. Rizzo has shown that he’ll fall back on that kind of starter after he’s exhausted some grander ideas that do not pan out.

Early in the market, though, the Nationals do not seem to be casting a wide net for that kind of starter. (They did sign Chris Young to a minor league deal, but it’s lunacy if they’re counting on him as anything but a contingency.)

Perhaps the Nationals are waiting to see what starters in that phylum shake loose later in the winter. Mike Pelfrey, a Boras client who pitched last season off of Tommy John surgery? Jason Vargas? Scott Kazmir? Scott Feldman? They have aimed higher than that in recent years, but there could be worse strategies than trying to pay for quality early, but going for a discount late if that doesn’t work out.

At the moment, the Nationals have more possibilities in their search for pitching than any sure things.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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