LAS VEGAS — If the Washington Nationals had a motto, at least in the Mike Rizzo era, it would be some version of “you can never have enough starting pitching.” Their history underscores this. But Wednesday, they traded away the man who has thrown the 10th-most innings of any pitcher in baseball over the past three seasons. Tanner Roark wasn’t perfect, but he was reliable.
So now, the Nationals must pivot. Earlier this week, when rumors of Roark’s availability emerged, Rizzo said the Nationals would not move him without acquiring another starter. As of the time they traded him Wednesday, they had not acquired a replacement. But the consensus, to the point of near inevitability, is that they will do so. Starters are moving fast right now, and a handful found new teams Wednesday. The Nationals seem unlikely to wait long.
In fact, they didn’t wait long to make a push for his replacement. They tried to sign left-hander Lance Lynn Wednesday, according to people familiar with their plans who said the Nationals were unwilling to give Lynn three years. The Texas Rangers gave him a third year. So the Nationals had to look elsewhere.
A few top-line free agents remain, but the Nationals traded Roark to save money. The goal of that move is to a) spend less and b) potentially get younger. Committing top dollar to someone such as Dallas Keuchel doesn’t make much sense.
Lower-profile (and, therefore, cheaper) free agents remain, and a person familiar with the Nationals' plans say they have considered Wade Miley, a left-hander, as a low-cost bounce-back candidate. Miley is 32, and has been inconsistent since compiling an all-star season in 2012. But he pitched to a 2.57 ERA in 16 starts with the Milwaukee Brewers last year, and owned a 1.23 ERA in four playoff outings.
The trade market also contains some intriguing possibilities. Reports suggest the Toronto Blue Jays are open to trading some of their starters, including right-hander Marcus Stroman, who Mike Rizzo drafted in 2009, and Aaron Sanchez, a 26-year-old with elite stuff and a history of ups and downs. The Cleveland Indians are, supposedly, open to deals for Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer. If the Nationals want to make a big splash, they can do so. But people familiar with their plans suggest a deal like that is not currently in their plans.
Rizzo also acknowledged that the Nationals had monitored the market on Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi, but they have not, traditionally, taken risks on Japanese players — and Kikuchi would likely not be a safe bet to eat innings in his first year in the big leagues. Under the new posting rules, the Nationals would not have to pay exorbitant fees for the right to negotiate with the 27-year-old, and would simply owe Nippon Professional Baseball a percentage of what they agreed to pay Kikuchi.
But while the Nationals do desperately need one or two more proven starters, they do not need those starters now. Spring training begins in two months, and the trade market is still in motion. Options abound. A team so consistently built on pitching seems unlikely to abandon its priorities now. But after sending one of the more durable starters in baseball to Cincinnati Wednesday, the Nationals have work to do.