The last time Mike Rizzo traded for an established starting pitcher was five years ago, in December 2013, when he sent Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi and Ian Krol to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Doug Fister.
Before that deal, the Washington Nationals general manager hadn’t traded for a big league starter since 2011, when he sent four players to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Gio Gonzalez. He had not made a deal for a starter with big league experience before that trade. Until about 2011, he and his staff had little need to add.
In the years since those deals, Rizzo has traded for dozens of relievers, a handful of regular position players, plenty of bench players and even a couple future rotation staples. But with established starting pitchers, he picks his spots. He might decide that this offseason is an ideal time to deal for a starter again.
Rizzo has said he will explore all his options on the starting pitching market. Everyone knows the big-name free agents — Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Nathan Eovaldi, etc. — and the Nationals will almost certainly keep track of all of them, even if they do not mount a full-on pursuit. But he also knows exactly who might be available on the trade market.
Asked informally about starters on teams said to be selling, Rizzo could recite statistics for almost all of them. He knew exactly how many innings lefty James Paxton, who was recently traded from the Mariners to the Yankees, threw last season. He and his staff have vetted their options for stuff, durability and affordability. None of that should be surprising, as the Nationals often emerge as a team that “checked” on X player. They call about almost everyone and consider almost everyone.
But what makes this offseason such an intriguing time to trade is the fact that the Nationals could use a long-term rotation fix, someone to stabilize the group behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Corbin, Keuchel and Eovaldi are 28 or older, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but Strasburg is 30 and Tanner Roark is 32. Rizzo could want a younger option in addition to, or instead of, those free agents.
Not all of the options available on the trade market would be younger. Diamondbacks right-hander Zack Greinke is 35, but perhaps the Nationals could pry him away if Arizona agreed to pay part of his record-breaking salary. But Robbie Ray, dealt to Detroit in the deal for Fister, might also be available, and he is 27 and under team control until 2021. Ray seems like more of a fit logistically, though his contract terms would probably require sending a greater prospect haul to Arizona. The Mets almost certainly would not trade Noah Syndergaard to a division rival, but he would be a high-end fit, too.
Indians ace Corey Kluber is 32, older than Fister and Gonzalez were when Rizzo traded for them. He is in the final year of a deal that has team options for 2020 and 2021, so he is under team control for some time, too. Carlos Carrasco is 31 and under control through 2020. Both could be enticing but would be shorter-term fixes. Some cognoscenti believe Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner might be available, and he is just 29. But he has battled injuries lately and is under team control only through next season. He does not seem like a Rizzo target, either.
Blue Jays starters might be available, too. Rizzo drafted Marcus Stroman originally, and he is 27, under team control through 2021 and coming off a down year. The Nationals could also buy low on Yankees right-hander Sonny Gray, though people familiar with their thought processes indicated they are aiming higher.
Whoever Rizzo chases, those deals for Fister and Gonzalez constitute a small sample size that nevertheless indicates his willingness to part with prospects to get top-line starting pitchers. He had to threaten to quit his job to complete the Gonzalez deal, as ownership could not understand how he would be willing to part with so many prospects to obtain one player. Gonzalez became a rotation staple for seven seasons, thereby preventing Rizzo from having to hunt further deals. He experienced similar pushback while trading for Fister, a deal in which he surrendered a future all-star (Ray) for a two-year fix.
Does he have the prospects to create that kind of package this time? Yes. While Rizzo has indicated that Victor Robles, Juan Soto and one of Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia are as close to untouchable as can be, he still has Kieboom or Garcia and other promising options to deal. And as the Kelvin Herrera trade (and others before it, including the Jonathan Papelbon deal) indicates, other teams often value less-heralded Nationals prospects as potential big league regulars. Rizzo doesn’t mind parting with them, either.
This winter, as the Nationals try to bolster their rotation for this year and the long term, Rizzo might see his opportunity to deal again. With Kurt Suzuki signed to play catcher, he might no longer feel pressure to pursue J.T. Realmuto, the kind of deal that would have emptied his prospect arsenal. If that deal doesn’t materialize, Rizzo has the firepower he needs to deal for a starting pitcher. He hasn’t dealt for starters often, but when he has, the deals have been significant. It might be time to make another.