Top free agent starters attractive to Nats, but come with question marks

The Nationals want to bolster the rotation with a veteran starting pitcher, and depending upon whom you choose to believe, general manager Mike Rizzo has been linked to the top three starters on the free agent market: left-handers Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson, and right-hander Roy Oswalt.

Will Rizzo return from the Winter Meetings in Dallas next week with one of the trio to sit atop the rotation in 2012? I’d say the chances are pretty good. The Nationals have money to spend, agents know they’re serious after the seven-year, $126 million deal they gave Jayson Werth a year ago this weekend and Rizzo has already begun his negotiations, having recently visited Buehrle in his St. Louis home.

Are any of those three pitchers a sure bet? No, and that’s why the Nationals have to carefully consider the tango with the threesome, weighing a long-term, big-money deal against a more affordable contract with a lesser free agent or a trade to get the innings-eating mentor they want.

Yesterday, I referred to Wilson as an imperfect fit for the Nats. To be honest, each of the three pitchers Washington is courting has flaws - some large and potentially dangerous, others the kind that can be overlooked or outweighed by performance. Those factors will come into play as Rizzo talks to the three pitchers and their agents.

Let’s start with Buehrle, since based on the fact that the Nats and the lefty have already met, those talks may be further along. Rizzo was smart to get in early on the 32-year-old, who has spent his entire major league career with the Chicago White Sox. He’s won 13 or more games in 10 of his 12 seasons, has a reputation as both a workhorse and a good clubhouse guy, and is just the kind of top-of-the-rotation arm that the Nats could use. What’s not to like?

The sticking point with Buehrle is two-fold. First, there’s a lot of competition, with about half the teams in baseball making overtures for a guy with a career 161-119 record, 3.83 ERA, four All-Star nods and three Gold Gloves. Agent Jeff Berry won’t act quickly, instead playing suitors against one another to get the best possible deal for his client. Buehrle reportedly wants $14 million a year for four seasons, along with full no-trade protection. He may be worth the money - with so many teams interested, his price will be driven up - but a blanket no-trade clause will be a roadblock for some teams. Maybe a team like the Nats, who are on the upswing, will be more likely to make that concession, but it could be a roadblock. Either way, Rizzo clearly likes the idea of a guy who dominated American League hitters at times, averaging 223 innings a season, pitching against National League competition. But Rizzo may have to overpay and grant the no-trade clause the lefty desires.

Wilson also has a high profile this offseason, and the 31-year-old converted closer is coming off back-to-back sterling campaigns: He went 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA in 2010 and 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA in 2011, helping the Texas Rangers reach the World Series in both seasons. Wilson has amassed 427 1/3 innings in the past two seasons, and that’s a lot for a guy whose previous career high was 73 innings in 2009, when he saved 14 games for the Rangers. He perfectly timed his best seasons in a new role for free agency, but teams have to wonder if he’ll break down again - he’s already gone through Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery in 2003, two seasons before he reached the bigs.

An all-business guy on the mound and in the clubhouse, Wilson looks like the kind of pitcher that would fill the Nats’ needs - he can take some of the pressure off Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, who are one and two years, respectively, removed from Tommy John, and Chien-Ming Wang, who lost two-plus seasons to shoulder problems. The southpaw would give the rotation a little more balance, but his propensity for walks - 167 over the past two seasons - is a red flag, albeit one that could be easier to deal with in a league without the designated hitter. And while Wilson might be the kind of guy who could get a contending Nationals team to the playoffs, but his postseason numbers the past two seasons leave a lot to be desired: one victory in nine starts - none after the divisional round - and a 4.82 ERA.

Oswalt is better known to the Nats from his days with the Astros and, more recently, the Phillies. He’s 34 and routinely topped 200 innings a season until last year, when a balky back and a leave of absence from the Phillies to tend to his family in Mississippi after tornadoes ravaged his hometown limited him to 139 innings, his lowest total since 2003. As he’s gotten older, Oswalt has relied on an assortment of four pitches and a veteran’s guile to confound hitters, but he’s exceeded his career 3.21 ERA four times in the past five seasons. Scouts have told me that they worry that when Oswalt starts to decline, the drop will be painfully quick and not a gradual thing.

Wilson and Oswalt share the same agent: Robert Garber, who is trying to make his clients seem as attractive as possible despite the fact that Wilson would prefer to pitch near his home on the West Coast and Oswalt would prefer to stay in the NL. Wilson is angling for a long-term deal for six years and $120 million. Oswalt might be a fallback option at two years if the Nats can’t work something out with Buehrle or Wilson, but being a veteran set in his ways, Oswalt might be willing to take less money to stay put in Philadelphia where not as much will be asked of him in a rotation featuring Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Where Wilson is aiming for a huge payday, Oswalt may be thinking more in terms of comfort zone.

Rizzo has long coveted a frontline starting pitcher, and if the Nationals intend to contend for a playoff berth in 2012, he can’t get shut out in Dallas. He’s a methodical worker when it comes to due diligence, but in order to finally snag his elusive quarry, Rizzo may have to be both decisive and creative, or he could again be shut out and have to look at less attractive fallback options.