The Nationals have made acquiring a front-line starting pitcher a priority this offseason. By virtue of that goal, they will be linked to any decent starter who is on the free agent market or available by trade.
And while the Nats have an interest in the top free agent pitcher available, lefty Cliff Lee - and, according to general manager Mike Rizzo, have already made contact with Lee's representatives - Rizzo already appears to be priming his fan base for the disappointment of seeing the talented southpaw sign elsewhere.
"I'd be a fool if I didn't like Cliff Lee or want Cliff Lee on our club," he told Sirius/XM Radio host Jim Duquette during an interview segment Wednesday. "He's the prize pitching guy in this year's free agent market. But again, I'm certainly not going to delude myself to the fact that we have a great chance of landing Cliff Lee. He's going to have enough takers and enough competition for us to pick and choose whatever ballclub he wants to go to. Suffice it to say that I love Cliff Lee, I'd love to have him on our club. He is a No. 1 starter in the Major Leagues."
Rizzo is acting shrewdly, however, to maintain his pursuit. The New York Yankees have already dispatched GM Brian Cashman to Lee's Arkansas home at the invitation of agent Derek Brauneker, and the Texas Rangers want to re-sign the pitcher that helped them their first World Series. But Lee's got a reputation as a well-paid mercenary, and it wouldn't be surprising if he simply opted for the highest offer made to him.
That means the Nationals could still have a chance to nab him, albeit a small one. Rizzo would need to hold back on his best, final offer for fear of not being used as leverage to increase other clubs' offers. It probably won't happen, but it's not totally out of the realm of possibility, either.
A more likely scenario would be for the Nationals to extend an offer to right-hander Brandon Webb, who hasn't pitched in a major league game since being injured in the Arizona Diamondbacks' 2009 opener on April 6. Right shoulder surgery followed, and Webb's been trying ever since to regain the form that made him one of the most dominant, durable pitchers in the National League from 2006-2008.
Webb won the N.L. Cy Young Award in 2006 with a 16-8 record and 3.10 ERA in 33 starts. He's twice led the National League in victories -- including a 22-7 season in 2008, his last year without injury - and has topped 200 innings five times in his six full seasons, leading the league with 236 1/3 (along with four complete games and three shutouts) in 2007. For his career, the 31-year-old Webb is 87-62 with a 3.27 ERA in 199 games with 1,065 strikeouts and only 435 walks (119 of them coming in 2004).
Because he's still working back from an injury, Webb is the classic low-risk, high-reward quarry. But he didn't fare well in instructional league last year, and the Nationals might be setting themselves up for the same kind of disappointment they got from Chien-Ming Wang, who signed last spring and was supposed to be in the majors by May but continues to rehab. Where Wang was a relatively inexpensive gamble at $2 million (and is still under club control), Webb may seek a bigger deal. Or he could favor a short-term contract that would allow him to prove himself, then hit free agency again for a bigger payday.
Rizzo and Webb go way back, the Nats general manager having drafted Webb in 2000 when he was Arizona's director of scouting. Not surprisingly, the two sides have already spoken.
"He's one of many people that we're talking to, taking about and looking into," Rizzo said Wednesday night after the Nationals unveiled their new uniform designs. "I do have a great relationship with him. I've known him since he was a junior at the University of Kentucky, so we go way back. The guy's won a Cy Young and a couple of seconds at Cy Young, so he's an accomplished pitcher."
Otherwise, when asked about the Nationals' plans for free agency, Rizzo wasn't very forthcoming Wednesday night.
"We're certainly talking with multiple options. We've got a lot of irons in the fire and we're working on a lot of things," he said.