The Nationals, like pretty much every other team in the major leagues, could use some pitching help entering next season. They would love to add an experienced starter to a rotation that, while improved from a year ago, still was lacking in many ways.
Saying you’re interested in adding a veteran starter, however, is very different from actually adding a veteran starter. And the term “veteran starter” can mean a whole lot of different things.
Are we talking about a top-of-the-rotation guy, someone who could lead this staff for years to come? Are we talking about a middle-of-the-rotation guy, a solid-but-unspectacular pitcher who takes the ball every fifth day and usually gives you a chance to win? Are we talking about a back-of-the-rotation guy, a stopgap solution who may not even make it through the entire season?
We don’t know specifically yet what the Nationals have in mind. But if we look back at Mike Rizzo’s track record, we can probably get an idea about the type of pitcher he usually pursues. And the type of pitcher he usually ignores.
Since becoming general manager in 2009, Rizzo has signed nine starting pitchers as major league free agents: Jason Marquis and Chien-Ming Wang in 2010, Edwin Jackson in 2012, Dan Haren in 2013, Max Scherzer in 2015, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez in 2019, Jon Lester in 2021 and Trevor Williams in 2023.
Rizzo also has acquired two major league starters via trade: Gio Gonzalez in 2012 and Doug Fister in 2014.
There have been plenty of other starting pitchers acquired over the last decade-plus, but they were signed to minor league deals or were acquired via trade while they were still pitching in the minor leagues. So the aforementioned 11 guys essentially were the only starting pitchers acquired from outside the organization who were guaranteed a spot in the rotation if healthy.
And what are the takeaways from those previous acquisitions? Pretty much everybody falls into one of two categories: A frontline starter who got a long-term contract, or an experienced veteran who got a short-term deal to help fill out the back of the rotation.
The two big signings, of course, were Scherzer and Corbin. Scherzer got a then-record, seven-year, $210 million contract prior to the 2015 season and proceeded to build an ironclad Hall of Fame case for himself in a Nats uniform. Corbin got six years and $140 million, lived up to the hype in his first season while winning Game 7 of the World Series, then fell apart ever since.
The other free agents all got one- or two-year deals at most, sometimes for hefty salaries ($11 million for Jackson, $13 million for Haren), sometimes for modest terms ($15 million over two years for Marquis, $2 million for one year for Wang, $19 million for two years for Sanchez, $5 million for one year for Lester, $13 million for two years for Williams).
As for the trade acquisitions, each came to the Nationals while eligible for arbitration, with Fister making $7.2 million in 2014 and $11.4 million in 2015, and Gonzalez immediately agreeing to a five-year, $45 million extension (plus two club options) that kept him under team control from 2012-18.
What kind of pitcher has Rizzo never really pursued? The middle-of-the-rotation guy who commands a mid-range deal, something like four years for $60 million.
Why? Because he seems to think those kinds of contracts and those kinds of pitchers aren’t smart. If he’s truly serious about bolstering a rotation, he’s going to think big and sign a Scherzer or Corbin. If he’s just trying to help fill out a rotation short on depth, he’s going to make sure he doesn’t commit to anything long term and hope those smaller contracts work out in the short term.
So, let’s apply that to this winter’s free agent market, which has candidates for all three categories of starters.
The big-name, top-of-the-rotation guys are Blake Snell, Aaron Nola and (thanks to a well-timed career year and postseason) Jordan Montgomery. All are projected to get contracts of at least six years and at least $150 million. Rizzo has shown he’s willing to go all-in on those kind of starters before, but is his team in the right position to go for it right now? Maybe, but probably not. More likely a year from now.
Then there are the mid-range starters, the guys Rizzo never seems to go for. From this year’s crop, that would seem to include names like Sonny Gray, Eduardo Rodriguez, Jack Flaherty, Lucas Giolito, Marcus Stroman, Michael Wacha, Kenta Maeda and Reynaldo Lopez. All are projected to get deals between two and four years for $30 million to $90 million. Maybe Rizzo breaks with precedent and goes this route. Odds are, he won’t.
So that leaves the lower-tier of free agents, the pitchers who can be had on short-term deals and be placed at the back of their new team’s rotation. A few of these pitchers (Mike Clevenger, Michael Lorenzen, Sean Manaea, Tyler Mahle) are still projected to get two-year deals. Everyone else (Frankie Montas, Luis Severino, Kyle Gibson, Clayton Kershaw, Lance Lynn, Wade Miley, James Paxton, Hyun-Jin Ryu, old pal and Korean Cy Young Award winner Erick Fedde) is projected to get a one-year deal, or perhaps even a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training.
Would any of those guys make a huge difference for the 2024 Nationals? It’s always possible, but still unlikely. Best-case, someone would enjoy four strong months giving his team a chance to win every five days and then be dealt for prospects at the trade deadline. Worst-case, they don’t work out but at least don’t cost a fortune.
Rizzo is notoriously tight-lipped about his offseason pursuits. You don’t see a lot of leaks coming out of his office this time of year. So it’s impossible to predict exactly what he’ll do.
But the track record does make it look pretty clear, doesn’t it? Maybe the Nationals will go big and sign a front-of-the-rotation starter for nine figures. Or more likely, they’ll look for another short-term, stop-gap solution and wait to see if it makes more sense to go big next winter.