The Nationals' search for a top starter won't be easy
ORLANDO -- The Washington Nationals want to acquire the kind of pitcher capable of heading most any rotation, someone they can send to the middle of the diamond on opening day and not pine -- at least not too much -- for the day Stephen Strasburg climbs the mound again.
The challenge, as General Manager Mike Rizzo is already finding this winter, is that's exactly what every other team in baseball wants, too. He compared elite starting pitching to a precious medal; another general manager here at the annual GM Meetings equated it to the Easter Bunny.
Pitching, for as long as they've played baseball, has been the game's most valuable commodity. After the pitching-rich, offensively challenged San Francisco Giants capped 2010 -- a season dubbed The Year of the Pitcher -- as world champions, starting pitching has perhaps never been harder to find or more costly to obtain.
It is into that market the Nationals will wade. At the end of the regular season, Rizzo called finding a top-shelf starter his first priority this offseason. He did not amend that goal, but he backed off slightly Tuesday evening in an interview. He will still chase the best pitchers available, but it will not be a wanton pursuit.
"To acquire that pitcher, that's a front-of-the-rotation guy, to fill that hole, that No. 1 starter, does it create so many other holes in you ball club that it's not worth it?" Rizzo said. "That's a balance we have to strike -- what our depth is and what we're trying to do. Those are all questions that depend on who the player is and what you're giving up for the player."
The supply and demand makes this free agent market a difficult one to navigate for teams, like the Nationals, looking for elite starting pitchers. "There just aren't many out there," said one AL GM. "Everyone is looking for the same thing."
That's because they all watched what happened this postseason. The teams that thrived in the postseason carried the very best pitching in the league. For the American League champion Texas Rangers, Cliff Lee put the entire postseason in a stranglehold. For the Giants, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner carried a patchwork offense all the way to a World Series parade.
The message was clear: Regular season success and playoff attrition are governed, most of all, by great pitchers. In researching the pitching market, Rizzo has discovered an extreme seller's market.
"They're as precious as gold, and they're very difficult to obtain," Rizzo said. "They're very expensive to obtain, either cash-expensive or player-expensive. But we're continuing to try and improve ourselves in that category."
After Lee, the free agent market is bereft of a surefire No. 1 starter. The second-best pitcher available may be Jorge de la Rosa of the Colorado Rockies, who is more tantalizing potential than proven results. One Nationals hitter surprisingly called de la Rosa the toughest at-bat he had all season, but his numbers tell a different story: He went 8-7 with a 4.22 ERA and a 2.05 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The other top free agent options are a collection of damaged goods with potential of recapturing past greatness (Brandon Webb, Erik Bedard), aging innings eaters (Carl Pavano, Jarrod Washburn) and mediocrity (take your pick). The Nationals will try for Lee, but Rizzo has said he understands Lee is a longshot to sign. After that, it's a significant dropoff.
"I think a few of them could fill a front-of-the-rotation starter," Rizzo said. "I don't think any of them are No. 1 starters, which are very, very few and far between. There are several pitchers that could improve our pitching staff, certainly, that would give any every-fifth-day good chance to win a game."
That leaves the option of a trade, which poses more challenges. The Nationals first have to find a team willing to part with a front-line starter, and there aren't many of those. Zack Greinke, Matt Garza and James Shields could be available in trades. Once Rizzo has a partner, he knows, the price will be steep.
"I'd be comfortable [trading valued prospects] depending on who we are losing," Rizzo said. "There's certain positions on the team where we have great depth where you wouldn't mind losing even a really good, front-line prospect because you have a prospect or two behind him. Those are the decisions that you have to make based on the player or players that they're asking for."
The bottom line: The Nationals still badly want to land a front-line starting pitcher this offseason. They know it will take a ransom to do so, but they have limits.
"We're at a point where if it's obtainable to get a front-of-the-rotation guy in , then we're going to go every avenue to get that player," Rizzo said. "But if we have to wait until  to obtain it, and Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann become that 1 and 2 and supplement it in 2012, those are fluid questions that we have to answer as we see what's available and what the cost to obtain the player."
| November 16, 2010; 6:56 PM ET
Categories: Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Rizzo, Pitching rotation, Stephen Strasburg, minors & farm system
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