NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When teams make a major move, there’s often a minor transaction that accompanies the bigger, flashier one. Often, it happens days, even weeks after the headline-grabbing news, and it’s relegated to much smaller type - or barely noticed at all.
By agreeing to terms with right-hander Dan Haren on a deal reportedly worth $13 million for one year, the Nationals solved one of the major items on general manager Mike Rizzo’s checklist for the Winter Meetings. Assuming he passes his physical - and Haren has dealt with back and hip ailments in recent years - that’s a No. 5 starter that’s head and shoulders above the guys at the back end of most rotations. And he comes without the financial risks associated with the $100 million or more it would have taken to land Zack Greinke.
So that’s Part A. Stay tuned for Part B.
With John Lannan non-tendered and Zach Duke signed to a one-year deal to work as the left-handed long man out of the bullpen, the Nationals will need to restock their starting pitching depth. There’s no doubt their five-man starting staff as it’s currently constituted is pretty impressive, but guys get injured or are ineffective in stretches. Imagine, for instance, what would have happened in September had the Nats not had Lannan ready to slide into the rotation when Stephen Strasburg reached his innings limit.
Rotations usually include five guys in the majors. Smart GMs like to have seven, eight or nine guys on their depth chart. In the NFL, it’s called the next-man-up mentality - if one guy can’t do the job, you go to the next name on the list and he gets the chance to show he can.
Sometime between now and the start of spring training in mid-February, Rizzo will sign a couple of fringe major leaguers, guys with a history of taking the ball every five days, and stash them at Triple-A Syracuse. Maybe such a move will even come a few weeks into the season, like when Duke - cut by the Diamondbacks in spring training - latched on with the Nats in May and ended up winning 15 games at Syracuse.
Having prospects ready to step into a rotation is nice, but a club crafted for playoff contention usually prefers to trust in experience as opposed to on-the-job training.
Why would a veteran guy with aspirations to pitch in the majors be willing to swallow his pride and bide his time in the minors? There are actually a few reasons.
First, it’s a paycheck, especially if your main source of income has suddenly dried up at the announcement that you’ve been pink-slipped. Perhaps it’s a package deal, where the agent for a player you’ve already signed or traded for suggests another of his clients who’s in search of a contract. Because the Nationals’ profile has risen substantially over the past couple of years, and because they’re viewed as gearing up for a run at the World Series, a player might opt to be part of their minor league depth in hopes he could contribute to a playoff push, instead of going somewhere where winning is secondary and merely collecting a paycheck becomes unfulfilling.
Whatever the reason, Rizzo will entertain calls from agents trying to place their charges. And he’ll have his pick of the litter, so to speak.
It’s a far cry from a few years ago, when pitchers of all ages, shapes and sizes showed up at Space Coast Stadium knowing there were jobs to be had. There will still be positions available, it’s just that the Nationals can now afford to be more selective and they’ll have better options to choose from.