Nationals’ options for rotation help starting to shrink

This has been, unfortunately as expected, an awfully slow start to free agency across baseball. Teams so far have been reluctant to spend anything resembling significant money, perhaps because they want to wait and see what the 2021 season is going to look like before committing, perhaps because they already intended to make players wait as long as possible in the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement.

There has, however, been just a tiny bit of movement the last couple weeks in one department. What few free agents have signed to date have mostly been starting pitchers, with one notable name coming off the board Tuesday.

Charlie Morton signed with the Braves for one year and $15 million, a move that bolsters Atlanta’s mostly young rotation with a tried-and-true veteran who sports a sparkling postseason resume.

Scherzer-Fires-Blue-Sidebar.jpgMorton certainly seemed like a prime target for the Nationals, who need a reliable fourth starter to slot in behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. We don’t know to what extent they pursued the 37-year-old right-hander, and perhaps Morton simply preferred to stay closer to his Florida home by signing with Atlanta, but a one-year deal like that sure feels like something the Nats would have been interested in locking up.

Morton wasn’t the only pitcher who seemed like a strong fit for the Nationals, but several of the other free agents who already have signed elsewhere also fit the bill:

* Marcus Stroman, who accepted the Mets’ $18.9 million qualifying offer

* Kevin Gausman, who accepted the Giants’ $18.9 million qualifying offer

* Robbie Ray, who re-signed with the Blue Jays for one year and $8 million

* Drew Smyly, who signed with the Braves for one year and $11 million

So who’s left for the Nats to consider? It seems unlikely they’d go big and try to sign Trevor Bauer, the top available pitcher, to a nine-figure contract. But second-tier candidates who remain unsigned include Jake Odorizzi, JosĂ© Quintana, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Jon Lester, Anthony DeSclafani and Rick Porcello.

Is it critical for the Nationals to come away with somebody from that group? Not necessarily. But if they’re paying even scant attention to what their chief division rivals are doing, they might need to get moving and make sure they’ve addressed this need one way or another soon.

The Braves have won three straight National League East titles. They came within a game of reaching the World Series last month. They possess one of the deepest and most feared lineups in the majors. And they’re quietly assembling what could be an elite rotation to go along with it.

We all saw this year how good Max Fried is, and we saw in October how much potential Ian Anderson has. Mike Soroka was their ace in 2019 and should be back to full strength early in 2021 after rupturing his Achilles tendon. Now add Morton and Smyly to the mix and the Braves have a potentially outstanding quintet of starters.

Better than the Nationals rotation? That’s up for debate. Though there’s plenty of potential there, the Braves don’t have a lot of sure things on their staff. A healthy Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin trio would be close to a sure thing and give the Nats the edge, at least in the top three slots.

But as we saw in 2018 and 2020, somebody still needs to pitch the other days. And when the Nationals have not had consistently effective fourth and fifth starters, they’ve suffered significantly as a team.

The Nats need a quality No. 4 starter. And they need someone from the forever-battling group of Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde to seize the No. 5 job at long last.

There are still several viable choices out there to be had. But they had better be careful not to wait around too long, lest that list dwindle down to only unappealing alternatives.

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