Nationals’ 2011 rotation could look awfully similar to 2010

The Nationals began the offseason with big pursuits and big talk: They wanted a No. 1 starter for their rotation, and they were perfectly willing to wade into a shallow market for pitching, armed with the cash to get a deal done.

Well, as we sit a few days before Christmas, when agents are trying to find homes for their players before the customary lull between holidays, the Nationals haven’t added a starter to their roster that they didn’t control last year. And at this point, it stands to reason they might not add anything new to their rotation before spring training.

Now, they’ll have some new pieces to play with once pitchers and catchers report; Jordan Zimmermann is healthy, Yunesky Maya is in the fold and Chien-Ming Wang hopes to make a comeback from shoulder surgery. But none of those pitchers bring anything close to the air of certainty a top starter would. At the same time, though, the price of doing anything at this point might not be worth it.

They could offer a three-year contract to Carl Pavano and hope it works out better than the last time the right-hander got a multiyear deal (with the Yankees after the 2004 season). Or they could sign Brandon Webb, adding another pitcher on an injury comeback to pair with Wang. Doing either of those things would further crowd a picture that already includes four pitchers with guaranteed money for next year (Jason Marquis, Livan Hernandez, Wang and Maya), not to mention two others who are virtual locks to be in the rotation (Zimmermann and John Lannan) and one former first-rounder whose career path is badly in need of some definition (Ross Detwiler).

The Nationals are pursuing Pavano and Webb at only a casual pace, focusing instead on getting a first baseman. And signing either could be redundant - what if Pavano is another Marquis, or Webb is another 2010 version of Wang?

The team went into the offseason with big intentions. It offered more money to Rockies starter Jorge De La Rosa than he took from Colorado, and made a play for Cliff Lee until the bidding got too rich for them. But this wasn’t a pitching market that favored newcomers to the bidding scene, and it’s looking more and more like the Nationals will enter 2011 with an updated version of what they had in 2010.

That might be sensible, and it’s always possible Wang will come back or Detwiler will finally get a full season to blossom. If that’s how things end up, though, it’s certainly not what the Nationals intended when they started the offseason.