David Huzzard: The Nationals and international free agents

List the best free agent pick-ups of this past offseason, and it will be difficult to leave off Hyun-jin Ryu or Yasiel Puig. Go back one season earlier and there is an argument to be made that the best free agent signings were once again of non-MLB players in Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish. This offseason, that could be the case once again with rumors of Masahiro Tanaka being posted and Jose Abreu already a free agent.

And while the Nationals made a run at Aroldis Chapman, there was never any news of them going after Ryu, Puig, Cespedes, or Darvish. It is one thing to lose a blind bid for an international star. It is another to not even get involved in the process and the Nationals are in a position where they could use both Tanaka and Abreu.

We’ll start with the pitcher. The biggest criticism of these types of deals is that it is spending around a $60 million posting fee and then somewhere around the same for the player himself. The contract will be spread out over five to seven years and it would be hard to find someone that would argue that Darvish isn’t worth the $9.5 million he is making this season. There is always the fear that all this money could be spent and the player becomes Daisuke Matsuzaka, but Tanaka, like Darvish, pitches more of a major league style. It was on display in the World Baseball Classic. He worked off his fastball, got ahead of hitters, and put them away with his off-speed pitches. Not as much trying to be fancy and always paint a corner like Matsuzaka.

An offseason with both Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum as free agents would have been exciting three years ago, but this is widely considered a weak free agent pitching class and the Nats need one or two back-of-the-rotation starters. Another criticism of signing players from foreign leagues is that they are too unknown, but what is known about the 2014 season? When the Nats signed Dan Haren, the move was praised because at his best he was one of the better pitchers in the National League and his worst was thought to be his 2012 numbers. But as everyone has seen, the worst has been much worse.

There is some risk involved in every free agent signing, but the upside of signing Tanaka is much greater than any 2014 free agent. His numbers in Nippon Professional Baseball are nearly as impressive as those of Darvish. As bad an evaluation stat as a pitcher’s wins are, it is impressive to see a pitcher go 20-0 with a 1.24 ERA and 0.934 WHIP. What all these numbers mean is unknown. He isn’t facing MLB quality hitters but his 2.32 career ERA compares well to Darvish’s 1.99 career ERA in the NPB. He doesn’t strike out as many batters, but his walks are lower, and we all know Mike Rizzo likes pitchers that work in the zone and don’t give free passes. Going after Tanaka isn’t a must for the Nationals, but it would be a smart move.

What could be an even smarter move would be to sign Jose Abreu. There is no posting fee for him and the future of position player prospects is much more certain than that of pitchers. As bad as the pitching free agent market is, the first base market is even worse. Chris Davis is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2015 season. Freddie Freeman after 2016 and Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt have already been locked into long-term deals. All-Star first basemen are starting to become like ace starting pitchers where if a team wants one, it has to grow one itself. Abreu is a rare opportunity to add a powerful slugging first baseman through free agency.

The Nationals currently have Adam LaRoche, but just as that didn’t stop them from going after Prince Fielder, it shouldn’t stop them from going after Abreu. As Abreu is from Cuba, there is less known about his numbers or quality of opponent than there is about Tanaka, but Cespedes and Puig faced the same level of competition and have thrived at the MLB level.

The big question is whether the close to $60 million needed to get Abreu is a better deal than sticking with LaRoche for one more season and hoping Matt Skole or Tyler Moore can play first in 2015, and then going after Chris Davis. Is it better to take the risk on Abreu with a much higher reward and have the first baseman of the future locked into a long term deal? Both options provide a fair amount of risk and neither are the only options. Free agency is always a risk, but if you could have one outfielder, would you take Carl Crawford or Yasiel Puig? The MLB free agent (the known) or the foreign star (the unknown)? As baseball fans have seen in recent seasons, the unknown may not be as scary as thinking something is known and being wrong.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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