For Nationals, how much is too much for a pitcher?

Let’s say the Nationals aren’t able to sign Cliff Lee this winter. That seems a likely possibility, considering the number of other teams involved in the bidding for the free agent left-hander and the price it would take to land him.


That, then, would shift the Nationals’ quest for a No. 1 starter to a couple of lesser lights on the free agent market, or a few trade candidates who would undoubtedly require a big ransom.

Pete Kerzel and I were talking yesterday about the possibilities for a trade - which would likely include the Royals’ Zack Greinke and the Rays’ Matt Garza. His take on it was, it might not be prudent for the Nationals to trade for a pitcher when they aren’t exactly swimming in top prospects and are already counting heavily on many of the top young players they do have.

I don’t think anyone would argue the Nationals shouldn’t be chasing a No. 1 starter, especially after seeing how much pitching determined the course of the 2010 postseason. But I can’t imagine them landing Greinke without losing Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa. Teams could also ask for Jordan Zimmermann or Derek Norris, and when you run through those names, you’ve listed most of the Nationals’ valuable pieces.

Is a package that includes Desmond and Norris too much to ask for a Greinke or a Garza? It very well could be, especially when the Nationals will be competing with a long list of teams seeking pitchers. There’s no question pitching is the most important component of a winning team these days - and it probably always has been - but it seems dangerous to start tearing away at your foundation to get one player. I’m not necessarily opposed to trading Desmond or Espinosa, especially when Stephen Lombardozzi is on his way and the Nationals have stocked up on middle infield prospects the last two years. But if you start talking about multiple high-end prospects, that seems a little counterintuitive to what the Nationals are trying to do.

Unfortunately for them, the free agent market isn’t stocked with great options beyond Lee. Jorge de la Rosa could be had, but he’s a Type A free agent and hasn’t posted 200 innings in a season. There’s Carl Pavano (who is 35 and might be too expensive) and Javier Vasquez (who seems like a better option), but the list features few sure things beyond Lee. Brandon Webb would be another low-risk, high-ceiling project, but the Nationals still have one of those (Chien-Ming Wang) that hasn’t pitched in a major league game.

So what do you think? Would you part with Desmond or Espinosa, or Norris or Zimmermann, to get a top-end pitcher this winter? And at what point is the price too steep?