LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Start with a big-name free agent. Make sure he’s represented by Scott Boras. Then connect them to the Nationals, specifically managing principal owner Ted Lerner.
Congratulations, you’ve just created the perfect Winter Meetings rumor.
It’s happened before, it’ll happen again and it did happen today when ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick tweeted that Boras “is trying to engage the Nationals on Jake Arrieta.” Crasnick went on to point out the obvious - the Nats already have committed $385 million to co-aces Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg - but mentioned “that hasn’t stopped Boras from making his pitch to Ted Lerner.”
If you’ve followed closely over the years, this shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. The only thing that changes is the name of the free agent. On a few occasions, most notably in the case of Scherzer, the rumor actually has come to fruition. In far more cases, nothing has ever come of it, with the Nats rebuffing Boras’ overtures and sticking with their originally intended plan.
So which is it this time? Are the Nationals actually interested in Arrieta, or is Boras simply trying to make them interested in the right-hander?
“The latter,” said a club source, not needing to go into any more detail than that.
Look, there’s plenty of reason for Boras to push the idea. Arrieta is one of two top-tier starting pitchers on the open market right now, along with Yu Darvish. The 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner became a star in Chicago over the last four seasons, going 64-29 with a 2.67 ERA while averaging 30 starts and 188 innings.
But Arrieta also is coming off a down season, by his recent standards, one in which his fastball velocity dropped 2 mph and the Cubs held him back to be their Game 4 starter in the National League Division Series against the Nationals. He’ll be 32 in March, and teams understandably are reluctant to give him the kind of mega-contract afforded to star pitchers like Scherzer (seven years, $210 million) and Strasburg (seven years, $175 million).
Then again, the Nationals do need another starter (even if general manager Mike Rizzo on Monday suggested they could go into the 2018 season with unproven Erick Fedde and A.J. Cole competing for the final spot in the rotation).
And Rizzo has shown plenty of interest over the years in trying to create a super rotation of sorts, adding another ace to a staff that already featured two. Three winters ago, he signed Scherzer despite the presence of both Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann on the roster. Last winter, he nearly pulled off a trade with the White Sox for Chris Sale, only to watch as the Red Sox swooped in at the last moment with a better package of prospects.
There’s still a good chance the Nationals will try to bolster what already is a strength this winter and acquire another frontline starter that could slot in behind Scherzer and Strasburg and bump Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark to the fourth and fifth positions.
But don’t count on that frontline starter being Arrieta. Not as long as the interest in a deal for the right-hander is almost entirely coming from the side of this equation that doesn’t write the checks.