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The Nationals’ option to trade for a starter

The Nationals appear to be in position to swing another trade like the one that landed them Gio Gonzalez two years ago. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Two years ago, the Nationals entered the offseason with a farm system that Baseball America ranked as the best in baseball. The Nationals used four of those prospects as capital to acquire left-hander Gio Gonzalez in a major trade with the Oakland A’s, a move that bolstered their rotation for years to come but temporarily sapped the upper levels of their minor leagues.

As this offseason starts to churn, the Nationals again believe they are positioned to add to their rotation with another significant trade. A series of small trades, the maturation of other prospects and two drafts have given the Nationals a better stockpile of young talent for them to use as trade chips this winter.

In their view, the Nationals have enough quality minor league talent to trade players away without leaving the system barren. That doesn’t mean they will make a trade. But they can.

“We certainly now again have the depth to go out and acquire a player via the trade market,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said in late September. “The guys are closer now. We see what we refer to as the ‘new wave,’ and that wave is about major league ready in ’14, whereas last year we had a little bit of a gap because of the Gio trade.”

Fox Sports’s Ken Rosenthal reiterated the Nationals’ interest in dealing for a starter in his column this morning, speculating about a possible deal with the Tigers for Max Scherzer. Scherzer has one year remaining on his deal and the Tigers, according to a CBS Sports report from October, are willing to deal him.

When asked if he would entertain the idea of trading Scherzer, Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski declined comment. “I would not discuss our trade situations going into the wintertime,” he said. “That’s not something we’d talk about.”

There remains understandable skepticism as to whether the Tigers, who are coming off two deep playoff runs and have employed a win-at-all-costs drive, would consider trading a 29-year-old presumptive American League Cy Young winner.

“The Detroit Tigers are not moving Max Scherzer,” said one person with ties to the Tigers, voicing an educated opinion. “They’re a team built for going for it. They’re adding, not subtracting.”

The Nationals are also on the long list of teams who could try to pry David Price loose from the Rays, which would take an astronomical return. The Royals parted with top prospect Wil Myers, among others, last year for Rays right-hander James Shields. Myers was the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball, and Price is flatly better than Shields.

In late October, one person close to the Nationals suggested they would scour rosters for available pitchers who, like Gonzalez at the time, have more years of control and are about to become eligible for arbitration. Now that the Nationals are positioning themselves for a potential trade, it is worth looking back at how the Nationals created Rizzo’s “new wave.”

In December 2011, the Nationals traded Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole for Gonzalez. Milone and Norris helped the A’s win consecutive American League West titles. Peacock went to Houston in a deal that netted Oakland shortstop Jed Lowrie.

Cole eventually returned to the Nationals in the three-team deal that sent Michael Morse to the Mariners. After Cole’s excellent season and a strong appearing in the Futures Game, Cole is now ranked by Baseball America as the Nationals’ No. 2 prospect. Blake Treinen also came to the Nationals in that trade, and at 25 he had a strong season for Class AA Harrisburg.

The Nationals have brought in Robert Gilliam (a throw-in in the Gonzalez trade), Dakota Bacus and Matthew Spann in smaller moves. None are highly regarded prospects, but they add depth to fill-in for any pitchers who would be traded. The Nationals lost top prospect Alex Meyer when they acquired Denard Span from the Twins, a decision that still stings in terms of pitching depth.

Through the draft, the Nationals have used their top pick in two straight years on pitching, adding Lucas Giolito, a 19-year-old right-hander with a 100 mph fastball, and Jake Johansen, a college right-hander who also hits 100. There are other names — Kylin Turnbull, Dixon Anderson, Brett Mooneyham — taken with high picks in recent seasons floating around further down the system. Even all the way down in the Gulf Coast League, Dominican products Hector Silvestre and Jefry Rodriguez, both 20, were outstanding this year.

Internally, the Nationals’ pitching situation has improved. Lefty Sammy Solis, a 2010 second-round pick, has recovered from Tommy John surgery and emerged as a Top 10 prospect. Robbie Ray has reached Class AA Harrisburg. Matt Purke, who signed a big league deal out of the 2011 draft, has, at least for the moment, overcome persistent health setbacks. (Some scouts have doubted his status as a prospect, however.) Giolito should move quickly through their minor league system now that he has recovered from Tommy John surgery. Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan and Nathan Karns could all compete for a job at the back of a big league rotation — Roark and Jordan compare to Milone and Peacock, who made strong first impressions in late 2011, much like Roark and Jordan in 2013.

So, it appears the Nationals have plenty of pitching rising to the surface that they could use in a trade. Despite large caveats, Scherzer and the Tigers would be a logical fit for many reasons. Scherzer will likely win the American League Cy Young award after he went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA, but he has only one year remaining before he hits free agency. He figures to make roughly $13.5 million in 2014, his final year of arbitration.

Rizzo has long had an affinity for players he drafted during his tenure as the Diamondbacks’ scouting director. In his final draft in Arizona in 2006, Rizzo drafted Scherzer in the first round.

The Tigers need an experienced closer, and the Nationals have listened to offers for Drew Storen before. Storen will receive a raise to more than $3 million in arbitration and, alongside Tyler Clippard, who is also due a hefty raise, may become too expensive for the Nationals’ tastes. It would obviously take much more than Storen to acquire Scherzer, but there would be one significant big league piece that fits a team still in win-now mode.

In the event Detroit offers Scherzer in a trade, the Nationals – or any team dealing for him – may want to tread lightly. The Tigers have operated in recent seasons with little regard for their budget, signing free agents in a full-court press to win a title for wealthy, aging owner Mike Illitch. The Tigers also enjoy a cozy relationship with Scott Boras, who represents Scherzer.

If the Tigers are willing to ship Scherzer, then, money probably won’t be the reason. And that means the Tigers’ motivation to move him would presumably lie in his expected performance. Scherzer outwardly raises no red flags, but the Tigers know him better than anyone.

The Nationals would likely want to negotiate a contract extension should they trade for Scherzer, or any other pitcher –- like Price –- with one or two years of team control left. The Nationals may look for younger, cheaper options who come with controllable seasons built in. One baseball official tossed out Cardinals right-hander/World Series observer Shelby Miller as an under-the-radar potential target should the Cardinals look at their roster, which is awash in young arms, and deem him expendable.

“We’re always looking for a way to improve ourselves and we’ve shown that we’re not afraid to pull the trigger and make a trade,” Rizzo said back in September. “We’re certainly going to be involved in the trade market and the free agent market and the international market.”

The international market this year means 25-year-old Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, a 6-foot-2 right-hander who went 24-0 with a 1.29 ERA for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. The Nationals have scouted Tanaka in Japan on multiple occasions throughout his career, according to a Nationals official, including late this season.

Tanaka will be compared to Yu Darvish, who has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since the Rangers acquired him through the posting system for a total financial commitment of $112 million. With the Dodgers and Yankees expected to vie for Tanaka, the cost to acquire him is expected to reach, or even surpass, $125 million.

“The things they do are similar,” the Nationals official said. “I think Tanaka has better overall command, and he has a killer split.”

Scouting Tanaka alone, even if they like him, does not indicate the Nationals will pursue him. The Nationals also scouted Darvish intently prior to the 2012 season, and Rizzo praised his ability, but they did not bid on obtaining the right to sign him. Still, the Nationals are at very least performing due diligence on Tanaka.

The Nationals may simply use the same strategy they used last season in tabbing Dan Haren to fill out their rotation, handing out a free agent contract. But the Nationals have options now, more options than they have had since they hatched a deal for Gonzalez two years ago.