By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009
INDIANAPOLIS -- The talent gap separating the Washington Nationals from prosperity -- that realm where September determines the playoff race, rather than the draft order -- can be measured with one word, the simplest and most significant in baseball: pitching.
The Nationals, right now, don't have enough of it. They know they need more of it. They'll likely spend much of their remaining offseason chasing it, and whatever they get still might not be enough.
Talent evaluators familiar with Washington's system agree that the Nationals won't contend for respectability, much less a playoff spot, without upgrading their pitching -- especially their starting staff. The Nationals last season relied on a group of starters that ranked 30th league-wide in wins, 30th in strikeouts, 27th in ERA, and first in growing pains. The seven rookies who started games for the 2009 Nationals accounted for 56.8 percent of the starting staff's innings pitched.
Though several of Washington's young pitchers have promising futures, the organization's short-term condition will depend largely on veterans who aren't on the team yet. Those in the front office know they need pitching help -- obtainable via trades or free agency -- and likewise, they're loath to experience another season where their capable offense is nullified by hurlers who belong in the minors.
With that in mind, the Nationals, while wrapping up the winter meetings on Thursday, will continue their search for what one front office official described as "an innings-eater." Several free agent pitchers meet that description. "There's a list, and the lists are long and they get pared down to the few people you focus on. But there's interest in a lot of pitchers," said General Manager Mike Rizzo. According to team and industry sources, Washington has expressed preliminary interest in Jon Garland, Jarrod Washburn, Joel Piñeiro, Vicente Padilla, Jason Marquis and John Smoltz. That's almost every upper-level starter on the market, short of A-lister John Lackey.
During the first days of these winter meetings, the Nationals moved quickly, orchestrating a trade for relief pitcher Brian Bruney and signing free agent catcher Iván Rodríguez. The pursuit of pitching, though, might require more patience.
The team appears to have no primary target among the available starters. In the early weeks of free agency, the pitching group has discovered a lucrative market, meaning the Nationals will have to either A) pay a steep price or B) hang back and hope somebody falls to them.
At these winter meetings, Brad Penny signed a one-year, $7.5 million deal with St. Louis. Rich Harden agreed to a deal that will pay him at least $7.5 million next year with Texas. Shortly after, Randy Wolf inked a three-year, $29 million deal with Milwaukee, one Washington official said, "That doesn't help us."
Speaking about the early pitching signings, agent Scott Boras said, "I think it really shows there's demand."
If the Nationals sign the sort of player they want, he will immediately assume a spot at the top of their rotation. John Lannan was their de facto ace last season, but even those in Washington's front office acknowledge that he's best suited as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter. By 2011, perhaps Lannan can slide into that role -- if Stephen Strasburg emerges as an ace, and if Jordan Zimmermann returns from reconstructive elbow surgery, and indeed, if an established pitcher joins the organization.
"They need what the other 29 [teams] need: Pitching," said Manny Acta, fired as Washington's manager last July. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist. If you finished last in pitching, you're not going to win."
Among those pitchers attracting Washington's interest, Garland is especially intriguing. Since 2002, only eight pitchers -- including Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia -- have thrown more innings. Meantime, Padilla is an inconsistent righty who managed, in 2009, to get released by one team (the Rangers) and lead another (the Dodgers) to the playoffs. Marquis is a sinkerballer who has won between 11 and 15 games in each of the past six seasons. Piñeiro is a finesse specialist, a right-handed version of Lannan. Smoltz, 42, is a future Hall of Famer who knows team president Stan Kasten from their days together in Atlanta.
The Nationals might consider Liván Hernández, the durable veteran who was reacquired last August and went 2-4 (5.36 ERA). Hernández's agent, Barry Praver, has spoken with Washington since the season ended about another contract -- likely a one-year deal with a low base and considerable performance incentives.
"The Nationals are aware that Liván would like to return to Washington next season," Praver said.
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.