How the early market for starters impacts the Nats

A week’s vacation for your trusty beat writer usually guarantees something for the Nationals: News.

Countless times over the years have I gone off the grid only to find out the Nats made some kind of major transaction in my absence. So, count me genuinely shocked when I got back to town after an extended Thanksgiving break with nary a peep coming out of South Capitol Street. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad Bobby Blanco’s holiday weekend wasn’t ruined by breaking news. But I fully expected to come back with reason to share my thoughts on multiple items of interest.

Instead … well, there really isn’t anything new on the Nationals to discuss. The Winter Meetings begin Sunday in Nashville, so there will be actual news soon enough. But not yet.

Perhaps the most interesting development of the last week from the Nats’ perspective was the flurry of moves made by other clubs. Especially when it came to free agent starting pitchers.

There have already been a number of moves in that oh-so-important department, and you better believe the Nationals were paying attention and calculating how it might impact their own pursuit of pitching help this winter.

The Cardinals were especially aggressive, signing three veteran right-handers in a matter of days in Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. Never mind that a rotation that just saw Adam Wainwright retire will still boast an average age of 35 next season. John Mozeliak clearly had a plan, and he executed it, whether you agree with the strategy or not.

Gray, coming off a fantastic season for the Twins, got an impressive three-year, $75 million deal. Gibson and Lynn, each coming off not-so-great seasons, each got one-year deals plus a club option, Gibson set to earn $12 million in 2024 while Lynn earns $10 million.

The Mets jumped into the mix Wednesday by picking up former Yankees right-hander Luis Severino for one year and $13 million, a nice sum for a guy who had a 6.65 ERA and pitched only 89 innings this season.

The Tigers, meanwhile, gave Kenta Maeda two years and $24 million to round out a busy holiday weekend for a rotation market that previously saw Aaron Nola break the bank with $172 million over seven years to stay with the Phillies.

What does any of this have to do with the Nationals? Well, if Mike Rizzo really is committed to add some experienced help to a rotation he hopes will be led by the young trio of MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray and Cade Cavalli soon enough, he should have a pretty good idea now what it’s going to cost.

We detailed a couple weeks ago why the Nats probably aren’t going after the few big-name starters available this winter. And historically, Rizzo has shied away from mid-range starters who get three- or four-year deals like Sonny Gray just got from St. Louis.

So that leaves the modest, one-year deals, which seems like the safest bet from the Nationals’ perspective. Even those starters, though, don’t come cheap.

Consider what the Cardinals just gave Gibson and Lynn and consider each guy’s recent performance record. Gibson did win 15 games for a very good Orioles team that gave him a ton of run support, but his 4.73 ERA, 1.318 WHIP and 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings were right in line with his numbers from the previous season in Philadelphia. Lynn went 13-11 for the White Sox and Dodgers but finished with a 5.73 ERA, 1.394 WHIP and league-leading 44 home runs surrendered.

The going rate for those 36-year-olds? Between $10 million and $12 million for one year, plus a club option.

That’s what the Nationals will need to spend to sign a comparable starter. Less than that gets you a guy with even more red flags.

We’ll have to wait and see how Rizzo plays this. Does he wait things out and try to find somebody who slipped through the cracks later this winter? Does he get antsy and try to make something happen in the next week?

We don’t know those answers yet. We do know what it’s probably going to cost him, though.

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