Nats free agency primer: Starting pitchers

Nats free agency primer: Starting pitchers
November 6, 2013, 11:15 am
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With MLB free agency officially underway — don’t get too excited yet, because players typically don’t start signing for several more weeks — we’re going to take a broad look at players the Nationals could pursue, based on positions of possible need. We start today with starting pitchers…

If it seems like the Nationals always are in the market for a starting pitcher, you’re right. They’ve acquired at least one starter every winter since they arrived in town nine years ago: Esteban Loaiza in 2005, Ramon Ortiz and Brian Lawrence in 2006, Tim Redding, Jason Simontacchi and Mike Bacsik in 2007, Odalis Perez in 2008, Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera in 2009, Jason Marquis and Chien-Ming Wang in 2010, Tom Gorzelanny in 2011, Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson in 2012, Dan Haren in 2013. With only a couple of notable exceptions (Loaiza and Gonzalez), most of these acquisitions have ranged anywhere from mild disappointment to downright disaster.

Trouble is, every team needs a starting pitcher or two every winter. Rarely does a club have five quality starters under contract on Nov. 1, so there’s always more demand than supply when it comes to the Hot Stove League. Which means free agent starters cost money, and require multi-year contracts, two things the Nationals may not be all that interested in relinquishing right now.

The Nationals don’t necessarily need to add anyone to their rotation. They very well could go into 2014 with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and either Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan. There would be some risk in that approach, though, especially given Detwiler’s injury woes this season.

Mike Rizzo has preferred to add veterans in the past, and he may be tempted to do the same this winter. That could come in the form of a trade for a high-profile starter like David Price, but for these purposes, we’re going to focus only on free agents.

There are 43 starting pitchers on HardballTalk’s Top 150 Free Agents list, and some of them could interest the Nationals. But they’re probably not in the market for a guy seeking a 3- or 4-year contract, more likely a quality veteran who could be had on a 1- or 2-year deal. Here, then, are five particularly intriguing names to consider…

He may command way more than the Nationals are willing to offer, especially in terms of years, but Rizzo has shown interest in him before at the trade deadline. The right-hander has several things going in his favor: He’s still young (he’ll turn 30 later this month), he’s got a solid track record (3.84 ERA in eight seasons) and he won’t cost the team that signs him a draft pick. Garza does, however, have some red flags attached to his name as well. Most notably: He has made only 42 total starts the last two years due to injuries.

There was a point only a couple of years ago when he was thought of as one of the truly elite young pitchers in the game. But a host of injuries have prevented the right-hander from realizing his full potential to date. When healthy, though, Johnson is as good as anybody. In the four seasons in which he has topped 150 innings pitched, he sports a 3.12 ERA. What are the odds he actually pitched 150 innings in 2014? It’s anybody’s guess. But he’ll only be 30 years old, he’ll agree to a one-year, incentive-laden deal and Rizzo has shown a willingness to take a flyer on guys like this before.

No, he’s nothing to get overly excited about. But there are few surer things than Arroyo. He’s made at least 32 starts in each of the last nine seasons, and his ERA has been better than league-average in seven of those seasons. He’s exactly what a No. 4 or 5 starter on a good team is supposed to be: A rock-solid, innings-eater.

Wait, are you serious? Actually, yes. He went 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA for a division champ this season. He tossed three shutouts. He walked only 29 batters in 190 1/3 innings. He’s 40 years old, but he can be had on a one-year deal. Don’t scoff, this one actually could make a lot of sense for the Nationals.

Now we’re treading off the beaten path a bit. You talk about a roll of the dice … But this would be a classic, low-risk gamble. It’s entirely possible his career is finished. He’s pretty much been a disaster the last two years. But if Roy Halladay does have something left in the tank and somehow becomes Roy Halladay again … wow, what a boost that would be for a club with championship visions.