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Could the Nationals make a play for a free agent starter such as Max Scherzer?

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Let’s first establish this: The Nationals don’t need a starting pitcher. The rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark was the best in baseball last season by many measures — ERA, FIP, WAR, take your pick — and (barring a trade) will return for 2015 after forming the backbone of a division-title winning team. Even if the Nationals make no moves this winter, they will be in position to repeat as NL East champions in a division that has no clear or significantly improved challenger. Keeping the title-contending rotation together for one more year, before Zimmermann and Fister are eligible for free agency, make sense.

But in classic hot stove form, Zimmermann’s and Fister’s names have emerged in trade rumors. And General Manager Mike Rizzo hasn’t denied that he would be open to listening to proposals on any of the many Nationals players approaching free agency if the offer was right. And there’s sound reasoning to do so: The Nationals could flip any of those players — Zimmermann is perhaps the most attractive because young top starters are hard to find — and fill a need by acquiring a major league middle infielder or prospect in return. The Nationals and Zimmermann have talked about long-terms extensions in the past and haven’t been close — all while the price for Zimmermann and starting pitching have gone up.

“[Zimmermann is] a key part of the team,” Rizzo said a week ago at the GM Meetings in Phoenix. “I would never say definitely [about trading him]. He’s a key part of the team. It would be a tough guy to move. But again, never say never because stranger things have happened.”

Earlier this week, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal wondered if the Nationals could trade Zimmermann for Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick, who has one year left on his contract, and a reliever — and then they could make a play for a free agent starting pitcher such as Max Scherzer. The reasoning? If the Nationals feel like they can’t sign Zimmermann long-term, trading him would fill the second base need. And, Rizzo is intimately familiar with Scherzer and knows Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, well because of past dealings with Boras clients Jayson Werth, Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon.

(This fantasy idea, however, would hinge on the 2015 payroll. If the Nationals bring back everyone from last season, it will be a team record. So moving Zimmermann’s $16.5 million salary would create room, but it could easily be taken up with the salary of the players they net in return from a trade and a potential free agent starter’s salary. Payroll considerations could be a big factor. Beyond 2015, however, the Nationals have relatively fewer payroll commitments on the books.)

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. Over the past two seaons, Scherzer has become an elite starting pitcher for the Tigers. The power right-hander won the American League Cy Young Award in 2013 with a 21-3 record, a 2.90 ERA, 144 ERA+ and 0.970 WHIP. This past season, he won 18 games, posted a 3.15 ERA, 127 ERA+ and 1.175 WHIP, and logged 200 innings for the second straight season. He has posted a double-digit strikeout rate in three consecutive years.

The Nationals had a chance to trade for Scherzer last winter, even asking about him, but didn’t acquire him. They realized instead that Fister was undervalued and focused on him, knowing he would be cheaper, he’d work well with the Nationals’ defense behind him and he would be under control for two years instead of one for Scherzer. But this winter offers a different dynamic because Scherzer is free to talk to any team.

Scherzer is 30 years old but has logged only 1,239 1/3 innings, relatively few given his age. Clayton Kershaw, for example, is 26 and has thrown 1,378 1/3 innings, while Felix Hernandez is two years old than him and has logged 2,060 2/3 innings. Scherzer is known as a cerebral pitcher whose velocity has held fairly steady over the years. And here’s a clue as how much he may command as a free agent this winter: He reportedly turned down a six-year, $144-million offer from the Tigers last season and Boras is surely shooting for at least that. The Yankees and Tigers have been linked to Scherzer.

As a point of comparison, a potential free agent contract for 28-year-old Zimmermann would perhaps begin with at least the six-year, $105 million deal the Reds gave Homer Bailey and fall closer to the contracts of Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels, who will make $147 million and $144 million over six years, respectively. The pitching prospect-rich Nationals, however, have also shied away from major long-term commitments to pitchers under Rizzo.

Again: This is all make-believe right now, a series of deductions and connections based on what is known about the Nationals. It’s a natural hot stove exercise to slap together names in fantasy winter trades ideas and link teams to free agents based on past histories, but teams — especially World Series contenders — rarely pull off blockbuster moves.

Ultimately, the Nationals have a lot to consider about 2015 and beyond, including payroll and what to do with the group of players nearing free agency, including two starters. Adding a free agent starting pitcher simply isn’t a priority.

“We feel comfortable with what he have right now,” Rizzo said last week. “We have not only five but are seven or eight deep. It’s not on the top of our wish list. Certainly things change, but I don’t see us being a player for a big free agent starter.”