Nats could go in one of several directions for rotation help

We looked at potential free agent outfielders that might interest the Nationals on Tuesday. Today we turn our attention to their other big need this winter: a No. 4 starter to replace the departing Aníbal Sánchez.

Some teams don’t prioritize a No. 4 starter. The Nationals do. Look back at their best seasons over the last near-decade, and they’ve pretty much always had a good fourth starter. Look back at their worst seasons during this run, and they’ve pretty much always had a problem there (including 2020).

Thumbnail image for Rizzo-Suit-sidebar.jpgHow do the Nats intend to address the issue this offseason? Will they spend big on someone who clearly is better than a typical No. 4 starter and try to create a super rotation? Will they seek a reliable-but-affordable veteran (like Sánchez was) to fall in line behind the big three names at the top of the rotation? Will they take a risk on a high-upside arm who may not pan out at all?

We don’t know the answer to that question, but there are several candidates who fit each of those descriptions ...

TREVOR BAUER
Opening day 2021 age: 30
2020 stats: 5-4, 1.73 ERA, 11 GS, 73 IP, 17 BB, 100 SO, 0.795 WHIP, 2.88 FIP, 2.7 bWAR
Projected contract: 5 years, $140 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Low to moderate. It’s not that he isn’t a really good pitcher, because he is. He’s by far the best starter on the free agent market this winter. The question is whether the Nationals are going to spend that kind of money to acquire yet another front-line starter. Maybe general manager Mike Rizzo surprises us again and tries to build a super rotation. Maybe he sees Bauer as a necessary addition as Max Scherzer enters the final year of his contract. But given their finances and other needs, the safer bet would be to acquire a fourth starter who costs much less for fewer years.

CHARLIE MORTON
Opening day 2021 age: 37
2020 stats: 2-2, 4.74 ERA, 9 GS, 38 IP, 10 BB, 42 SO, 1.395 WHIP, 3.45 FIP, 0.2 bWAR
Projected contract: 1 year, $12 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Moderate to high. Did somebody say “fourth starter who costs much less for fewer years?” Morton certainly fits that description. He’s nobody’s idea of an ace, but he’s everybody’s idea of a strong middle-of-the-rotation guy who has built up an impressive October track record in the past with the Astros and Rays. The drawback: Morton isn’t 100 percent committed to pitching another season, and he has made it clear his top priority is to remain close to his family in Florida. So it may not matter how much the Nationals are interested in him if he’s not particularly interested in the Nationals.

KEVIN GAUSMAN
Opening day 2021 age: 30
2020 stats: 3-3, 3.62 ERA, 12 G, 10 GS, 59 2/3 IP, 16 BB, 79 SO, 1.106 WHIP, 3.09 FIP, 1.3 bWAR
Projected contract: 1 year, $18.9 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Low. On the surface, Gausman would make a lot of sense for the Nats, who wouldn’t need to make a long-term commitment to him. But the Giants (to the surprise of some) extended him a qualifying offer last week. It’s now up to Gausman to decide if the one-year, $18.9 million he would get to return to San Francisco is better than what he’d get on the open market. If he declines it, though, any team that signs him would have to forfeit a draft pick. The Nats have been willing to give up draft picks for free agents in the past, but usually for big-name stars, not for No. 4 starters on short-term deals.

MARCUS STROMAN
Opening day 2021 age: 29
2020 stats: Did not pitch (opted out)
Projected contract: 4 years, $60 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Moderate to high. If you’re looking for a middle-of-the-rotation starter who’s still young and promising enough to maybe become a front-of-the-rotation starter in the future, Stroman is a prime candidate. That said, he’s not a high-strikeout guy, which can be troubling in today’s game. And because he opted out of the 2020 season, there’s a high degree of uncertainty heading into 2021. Still, there’s a lot of untapped potential in there, and you have to believe he’s among the Nationals’ top choices. (He did get a qualifying offer, so the team that signs him will have to give up a draft pick.)

TAIJUAN WALKER
Opening day 2021 age: 28
2020 stats: 4-3, 2.70 ERA, 11 GS, 53 1/3 IP, 19 BB, 50 SO, 1.163 WHIP, 4.56 FIP, 0.9 bWAR
Projected contract: 2 years, $16 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Moderate to high. Elbow and shoulder injuries limited him to four total starts in 2018-19, but he returned healthy last season and pitched well for the Mariners and Blue Jays. He doesn’t have the track record other free agents do, but he has upside. And he should be affordable. There’s risk involved because of his injury history, but he could be worth the gamble.

MASAHIRO TANAKA
Opening day 2021 age: 32
2020 stats: 3-3, 3.56 ERA, 10 GS, 48 IP, 8 BB, 44 SO, 1.167 WHIP, 4.42 FIP, 0.7 bWAR
Projected contract: 3 years, $33 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Low. Tanaka never was the star so many predicted when he left Japan and signed with the Yankees. But he’s been a durable and reliable starter for seven seasons now, even though he’s pitched the whole time with a partially torn elbow that somehow hasn’t required Tommy John surgery. New York probably wants him back, so it’s probably going to cost other teams a lot to lure him away. And given his injury risk and the fact they’ve always been reluctant to sign high-profile players from Asia, the Nationals don’t seem like a logical fit.

JAKE ODORIZZI
Opening day 2021 age: 31
2020 stats: 0-1, 6.59 ERA, 4 GS, 13 2/3 IP, 3 BB, 12 SO, 1.390 WHIP, 6.12 FIP, -0.2 bWAR
Projected contract: 2 years, $26 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Moderate. A bunch of nagging (non-arm-related) injuries derailed Odorizzi’s season with the Twins, but he was an All-Star in 2019 and has been a workhorse throughout his career. A healthy 2020 and a better market might’ve put him in line for the big payday. Instead, some club might get a real bargain on a solid, middle-of-the-rotation guy.

ROBBIE RAY
Opening day 2021 age: 29
2020 stats: 2-5, 6.62 ERA, 12 G, 11 GS, 51 2/3 IP, 45 BB, 68 SO, 1.897 WHIP, 6.50 FIP, -0.1 bWAR
Projected contract: 1 year, $7 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Moderate. Way back in December 2013, the Nationals acquired Doug Fister from the Tigers for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and a young pitching prospect. At the time, Rizzo was most disappointed about losing that prospect, and former Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski was most excited about acquiring him. That prospect was Ray, who went on to be an All-Star for the Diamondbacks in 2017. He’s been wildly inconsistent since, with one of the highest walk rates in the majors. But he also strikes out a ton of batters. And Rizzo knows him. So perhaps a reunion is possible.

Other potential starting pitcher candidates: James Paxton, José Quintana, Anthony DeSclafani, Rick Porcello

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