Nationals’ quest for a pitcher looks like a tough one

As most baseball beat writers do, I make a fairly regular habit of perusing the work of my counterparts around the game, to keep track of what’s going on with other teams and spot trends that might be cropping up. That’s particularly important this time of year, and the theme is obvious: Everyone wants pitching.

And for the Nationals, this is a particularly bad year for that to be the case. Why? Because they want pitching, too, and like a dozen or so other teams, they’re going to be chasing after the same three or four players.

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Cliff Lee is obviously at the top of everyone’s list, and the Nationals (who have already contacted Lee’s agent) plan to take a run at him. But they know already they’d have to get into a bidding war for him, and could run the risk of being used as leverage like they were in 2008’s Mark Teixeira sweepstakes.

Beyond Lee, there isn’t a sure thing on the market, and the trade options - Kansas City’s Zack Greinke and Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza and James Shields - will command a ransom of prospects.

That’s a big part of the reason Nationals GM Mike Rizzo sounded less brazen in his pursuit of a pitcher yesterday than he has at any time since he first said a No. 1 starter is the Nationals’ biggest priority. Speaking at the general managers’ meetings in Orlando, Fla., Rizzo told reporters the Nationals realize they could have to wait until Stephen Strasburg returns in 2012 to get an ace, though they’ll make a good-faith effort to get one this year.

“We’re at a point where if it’s obtainable to get a front-of-the-rotation guy in (2011), then we’re going to go every avenue to get that player,” Rizzo said, via the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore. “But if we have to wait until (2012) to obtain it, and Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann become that 1 and 2 and supplement it in 2012, those are fluid questions that we have to answer as we see what’s available and what the cost to obtain the player.”

Rizzo is wary of being used as leverage, and though he is sounding a cautious tone, baseball people expect the Nationals to be aggressive this winter, trying to land a big-name player and “make a splash,” as one source said. But that player might not be a pitcher, especially in a year where there are so few bona-fide aces available.

It’s why Strasburg’s injury hurts the Nationals so much this year; the cheapest way to get a top-end starter is to draft and develop your own. They’ll have to wait until at least September to get him back, and very quickly, they’re seeing how difficult it will be to replace what he could bring to their rotation.