NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. - Front office personnel and media members are streaming into the Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center for baseball’s Winter Meetings. There’s a significant presence of curious Nationals fans, too, which is good to see. Well done, NatsTown!
Even before early arrivals to the Winter Meetings - which don’t officially kick off until Monday, save for the occasional big and unexpected Sunday night announcement (see: Nationals, Jayson Werth, 2010) - lots of eyes have been focused on the Nats, who appear to be in position to pull off at least one blockbuster deal over the next few days. Maybe two, if you don’t mind gutting a farm system that has been carefully rebuilt with top prospects over the past few years.
There are two big names being bandied about as available: Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen and White Sox lefty Chris Sale. Both could be viewed as transformative players, the kind of acquisition that could get a team over the hump. Or, in the Nats’ case, past the National League Division Series. McCutchen, 30, is a five-time All-Star coming off his worst of eight major league campaigns, a .256/.336/.430 bender that represented career lows in all three categories. The down year apparently soured Pirates management, which feels trading their franchise player might net the kind of haul that gets a rebuilding movement under way on a positive note. Sale, 27, is a rotation workhorse who has made five straight All-Star teams, made 30 or more starts in four of the last five seasons and twice led the American League in complete games. But he’s clashed with management and the White Sox might be willing to part with him as part of a rebuilding effort.
Both represent the kind of bold, splashy move that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo favors. Both are available - for the right price.
Which leads us to a question: How much is too much to pay for one, either or both players?
Let’s start with some basic premises of Winter Meetings trade making. You have to give something to get something. Top prospects are the kind of players other teams want back in return for their established stars. And the Nationals have enough intriguing pieces in their organization to make a play for McCutchen and/or Sale.
McCutchen would push incumbent center fielder Trea Turner back to his natural position at shortstop and make Danny Espinosa expendable. McCutchen is signed through 2017, and will earn $14 million next season, but the Pirates hold a $14.75 million option on him for 2018, a perfectly reasonable salary in an era of escalating superstar paychecks. Next season will be the last of Sale’s five-year, $32.5 million deal, though there are team options for $12.5 million in 2018 and $13.5 for 2019. Again, talking about a front-line ace-type starter, that’s not an excessive investment. Can you imagine a rotation where right-hander Stephen Strasburg is the de facto No. 3 starter?
So what will the Pirates and/or White Sox want for either of these stars? Prospects, the higher on the top 10 list the better. Probably more than one of them. And at least one player deemed major league ready to fill a hole - either for the player being traded or another roster vacancy deemed important to plug.
Everyone talks about outfielder Victor Robles, 19, a potential five-tool player who hits for power, has a cannon for an arm and flies like the wind. Robles has slashed .301/.401/.458 in three minor league seasons, though a hand injury limited him to 41 games at high Single-A Potomac last season after he was promoted from low Single-A Hagerstown. With Turner off the board - Rizzo has said there’s no way he’s dealing the top-of-the-order sparkplug - Robles is at the top of everyone’s list.
The Nationals are flush with pitching prospects who are major league-ready or nearly ready to contribute. Right-hander Reynaldo Lopez, who made the NLDS roster in October, may have inched ahead of top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito, who struggled in his six-game trial (four starts) last year. Both are 22, and have the pure stuff to be at the front of a rotation for years to come. It would take a lot - or the right player - to pry either from the Nats. And dealing either pitcher or Robles for a guy under team control through only two more years signifies a definitive window. Simply put, Rizzo won’t mortgage the future for anything but a good chance to go deep into the postseason.
There are other pitching prospects that might be part of a blockbuster. Righty Erick Fedde, 23, was a first-round pick (18th overall) in 2014, and went 8-5 with a 3.12 ERA between Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg last year. Right-hander Austin Voth, 24, spent last season at Triple-A Syracuse and posted a 3.15 ERA in 27 games (25 starts). Right now, there doesn’t seem to be a place for righty A.J. Cole in the Nats immediate pitching plans - especially not if they snag Sale - but the 24-year-old regressed last season and didn’t dominate at Triple-A, where he was 8-8 with a 4.26 ERA in 22 starts. But he could be the kind of player who’s young, talented and intriguing enough to get included in a multiple-player package.
Keep an eye on righty Joe Ross. Though the Nationals don’t want to lose him, they might be willing to bundle him with a couple of prospects to make a trade more palatable for the team giving up a superstar. Ross has his champions in the organization, but there are some who question his toughness, based on last year’s slow progression back from a right shoulder injury. The Nationals said they were being cautious by limiting Ross’ initial rehab starts on a strict pitch count. Likewise, the Nats’ cadre of young relief arms will be attractive pieces in any potential trade, especially with the new focus on bullpens constructed for the long haul.
Those are the big names. Teams have no doubt been poring over video and scouting reports on Nationals farmhands for several weeks in preparation for the Winter Meetings. Other players could be included in any package - not just Robles and the promising pitchers. But that depends on a team’s specific needs.
But how much is enough? And when does enough become too much? The Nationals might be able to package together enough players to still keep the top tier of their farm system intact - in other words, they’d still have significant numbers of prospects in the wings to prevent against injuries or defections in free agency down the road.
When the Nats acquired Gio Gonzalez in December 2011, they dealt away four of their top 10 prospects - three arms (Cole, Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock) and a catcher (recently reacquired Derek Norris). Though they quickly inked Gonzalez to a six-year, $53.5 million extension, their top-rated farm system immediately bounced to the bottom of the major leagues.
Rizzo is the kind of GM who is not afraid to develop top prospects in order to bolster a trade offer. But emptying the organizational bank in one or two megadeals can have far-reaching consequences. It took the Nationals a few seasons to restock their farm system after the Gonzalez swap, and loyal fans have been hearing the names of Lopez and Giolito (and, to a lesser extent, Robles) for long enough to expect them to arrive and contribute in short order.
So what’s all of this mean? Well, the Nationals have serious interest in both McCutchen and Sale. They also have a deep enough farm system in order to make a deal for one or both of the stars. But it would mean wiping out the top levels of the team’s best prospects, and it would signify that the Nationals are creating for themselves a clear window to compete for a World Series trophy.
There are those who prefer immediate gratification as opposed to the slow play, which often produces better results. But after three NLDS exits in five years, there are also those who think the Nationals can’t wait - especially if a marquee player would put them over the hump and into baseball’s upper echelon.