Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo's statement yesterday that the Nationals want a No. 1 starterwas not new. What did move the needle was when Rizzo said the Nationals have the ammunition to get a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, either by spending on one or trading for one.
But who could that be? Let's take a look at some options:
Cliff Lee: This is the big fish, and if you're talking about aces in the free agent market, he's really the only one you can be talking about. Lee brings everything to the table the Nationals could want; he's pitched 200 innings five of the last six years, doesn't walk batters, doesn't give up homers and gets plenty of strikeouts with what might be one of baseball's most underrated fastball repertoires; he can throw four-seamers, two-seamers and cut it. He'd be an ace for the rotation, a tremendous mentor for pitchers like John Lannan who throw somewhat similar stuff and a craftier complement for Stephen Strasburg when he gets healthy. And he'd be expensive.
How the Nationals could get him: By paying, and paying big. Lee is easily the most coveted free-agent pitcher of the winter, and landing him would mean prying hm away from all the traditional suitors for these types of free agents: the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers, etc. But Rizzo, at least yesterday, sounded ready to get into that kind of fight. "Free agency is obviously the easier option," he said. "All it costs you is money."
Zack Greinke: The Royals are reportedly considering parting with the 2009 Cy Young winner, who is due $27 million over the next two seasons and might not make financial sense for a team that doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Greinke had a once-in-a-generation season for the Royals in 2009, posting a 2.16 ERA and striking out 242 batters in 229 1/3 innings while walking just 51 and giving up 11 homers. He's regressed in 2010, at least by some metrics (his ERA is 4.16), but Greinke's infield defense has let him down, which can be tough on a groundball pitcher. He'd make some sense for the Nationals, though, with Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa waiting to gobble up grounders behind him. FanGraphs just took a look at Greinke's season yesterday.
How the Nationals could get him: It'd take an impressive haul of prospects, probably at least one of them close to big league ready. I was discussing this possibility with a few Nats reporters last week, and though we were purely speculating, we were kicking around a Derek Norris-Ross Detwiler-Desmond package. That's an awfully steep price, especially with Desmond being in the package, but the Royals could use help in the middle of their infield, and Detwiler (who's from St. Louis) probably still has some value. In an ironic twist, he'd then be paired with Aaron Crow, the Missouri right-hander who was the Nationals' first-round pick in 2008 and went to the Royals in the first round the next year after he was unable to come to a deal with the Nationals.
Matt Garza: In another blast from the past, the Nationals could make a run at a pitcher they could have had in 2006, had the Twins been willing to part with him back then in a trade for Alfonso Soriano. Instead, they traded him to the Rays before the 2008 season (I'm going to keep my Twins fanboy feelings on that deal to myself), and the Rays could unload the right-hander, who is due to hit his second year arbitration after this year, to make room for Jeremy Hellickson. Garza might be the least-reliable of these three possibilities, but he's a hard thrower with a big curveball, and he's not shy about commanding the spotlight (see his 2008 ALCS Game 7 win over the Red Sox or his no-hitter this year).
How the Nationals could get him: Garza would likely be the most affordable in terms of a payroll hit, but like Greinke, he would require the Nationals to part with some big prospects. The Rays are in search of younger players to replace the hit they're about to take with players hitting free agency and arbitration. Organizationally, they're a tad thin at first base, so Marrero or Norris (or maybe both) could go here in a deal; Marrero is closer to the majors than Matt Sweeney, the Rays' top corner infield prospect. Tampa also could use a corner infielder in their system, which could be Michael Burgess or Destin Hood. If the Nationals could get Garza for a Marrero-Burgess package, or a Marrero-Hood package, that'd be more palatable than Greinke, and would be a good fit for the Rays' needs.
What do you think of those possibilities? Any other pitchers you've got your eye on? Let me know.