The Nationals made their rotation plans clear when they did not give Jackson a qualifying offer on Friday night — they want to add a fifth starter from outside the organization. For now, people familiar with the Nationals’ thinking expect them to either trade arbitration-eligible John Lannan or allow him to become a free agent. Manager Davey Johnson raised the possibility of converting standout call-up Christian Garcia from a reliever to a starter, but his inexperience and history of arm injury may make that too risky.
With a young staff, the Nationals would like to add a durable, veteran starter. Free agents Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster and Dan Haren, whom the Los Angeles Angels let go after he struggled through a lower-back injury in 2012, all fit the mold.
Lohse, a Scott Boras client, is coming off the two best seasons of his career and would demand a contract of three or four years, which may be more than the Nationals are willing to commit with top prospect Alex Meyer a possibility for the 2014 rotation. Dempster would require less money and fewer seasons. Haren may be the best fit, a No. 2-caliber starter if he can rebound from the injury. He averaged 226 innings per season with a 3.49 ERA from 2005 through 2011.
In the bullpen, the Nationals’ top two left-handers, Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez, are free agents. The Nationals plan on trying to re-sign Zach Duke and giving him the left-handed long-relief/spot starter role filled by Tom Gorzelanny last season. The move could let them trade Gorzelanny for another piece or to keep Gorzelanny, who is eligible for arbitration, and make him into a left-handed specialist.
If the Nationals cannot re-sign Burnett, who will be sought-after, they could target Jeremy Affeldt to replace him. Affeldt is older than Burnett, but has been similarly productive in recent seasons and, like Burnett, is effective against left-handed and right-handed hitters.
The Nationals may also try to enhance the back-end of their bullpen. Ryan Madson, a former Phillies closer coming off Tommy John surgery, is a possibility if they decide they prioritize putting another power arm with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
Despite all the chatter, the Nationals have the option to prune their roster, not overhaul it. But the past two offseasons have both brought surprises — Werth’s megadeal prior to 2011 and Jackson’s late signing before 2012. It’s probably wise to expect something unexpected.