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Free agency primer: Starting pitchers

Nov 6, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT

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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…

MATT GARZA
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.

JOSH JOHNSON
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.

BRONSON ARROYO
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.

BARTOLO COLON
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.

ROY HALLADAY
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.

  1. Joe Seamhead - Nov 6, 2013 at 7:52 AM

    In the case of Roy Halladay, I really think that old Cholly Manuel rode that horse hard and put it away wet too many times. Roy’s done.

    Johnson and Garza are also damaged goods. 5 years ago the Nats settled for the likes of guys like them. Hopefully not now.

    As to Arroyo, something about that guy I never liked, though he did pitch pretty good for a few years. I think it was more his cocky attitude I never cared for. I’d rather go with Ohlendorf and/or the rest of the in-house choices.

    I actually agree with Mark on Bartolo making some sense, but …jeez, he is 40!

    If Rizzo doesn’t go with guys he already has under control I think that a trade would be more likely than any of these FA guys.

  2. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 6, 2013 at 8:04 AM

    no Ubaldo? I won’t mind Nats committing more than 2 years to the right pitcher. Rental-a-year is a bit tiring.

  3. Candide - Nov 6, 2013 at 8:33 AM

    I’ve always liked Arroyo – about as solid as they come. Knock on him is that he gives up a lot of HRs, (in Cincinnati), but check out what’s happened to his BB stats the last five years – he gets the ball over the plate. He’s old, but he’s a pitcher, could probably teach our young studs a thing or two, including how to hold runners – his SB/CS numbers are very nice.

  4. Candide - Nov 6, 2013 at 8:37 AM

    And then there’s Max Scherzer… (per Rosenthal)

  5. acethehammer - Nov 6, 2013 at 8:37 AM

    I wouldn’t mind Arroyo or Colon on a one-year deal, or possibly even Johnson for two years. Garza will certainly be overpriced, and Halladay is probably finished. My pick is signing Freddy Garcia on a one-year deal. He pitched well in Norfolk when the O’s had him stashed down there earlier this year, and he did well for the Braves down the stretch.

    • DaveB - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:17 AM

      I would definitely be worried about getting Johnson (especially for 2 years). I’ve seen a couple of analyses in the past (not sure I could put a finger on them right now) that showed fairly significant fall-off starting back in 2011/12, even aside from the injury issues. Seems like he could easily be the next Dan Haren here.

      • sjm308 - Nov 6, 2013 at 4:54 PM

        johnson has already said he would only sign a one year deal

  6. Sonny G 10 - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    I think Halladay is too risky and probably done. Not crazy about any of the others either.

  7. dan7162 - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    I know Chien-Ming Wang was a big disappointment for Nats, but he had been healthy for the entire season in 2013. He was the league pitching leader in triple A. His MLB outings are not impressive, but an average xFIP (4.07) provides explanations.

    He is willing to begin his 2014 season from the bullpen. It’s not a bad idea to sign him in the chiefs in case Ryan Matheus does not come back.

  8. Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:19 AM

    I like Ricky Nolasco. Far down the list and a good 1 year deal.

  9. Candide - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:19 AM

    After Haren, I’m not interested in pitchers looking to come back after a couple of seasons of injuries. Strike Garza and Johnson off my list.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:24 AM

      I agree. These reclamation deals and “wishing and hoping” like even EJax cost this team. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

  10. jd - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:28 AM

    Ghost,

    I agree with you about Nolasco. Very solid no. 3 starter. The only other interesting name here is Garza and he is a big injury risk.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:48 AM

      What I also like about Nolasco was that he was in demand at the trade deadline in 2013. If the Nats don’t need him on July 31 he becomes a valuable trade chip.

      I still believe the Nats needs center on the health and effectiveness of Ross Detwiler but you really don’t know what you have in Ross until the middle of Spring Training.

  11. Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:29 AM

    Nolasco has averaged 198 innings per year over the last 3 years and turned in an impressive 3.52 ERA for the Dodgers. Nolasco will be 31 in December.

  12. Theophilus T.S. - Nov 6, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    At some point, because of arbitration, looming free agencies, the Nats have to start spending serious money on home-grown talent. Therefore, there is a time — soon — beyond which they can’t afford to pay high dollars for mediocrity and need to turn to the maturing talent coming through the minor leagues. There are probably seven pitchers — Roark, Jordan, Karns, Cole, Solis, Purke, Giolito — who will be major-league ready or bust between this spring and 2016. The longest affordable plug-in is two years . . . no more.

    Garza will probably demand no less than four years and is therefore immediately ruled out. Apart from that he has always fallen considerably short of his potential, because of injuries in some years, and when he retires will be toward the bottom on the list of Lowest Career Return on Investment. Nix to that.

    Johnson: high reward if you can get him for low risk. Imagine if he could be what he was in the prime moments of his career. To get that, they might have to let him sit until June. Some team (Colorado?) is going to offer him $8-10MM for one year, which is twice as much as would be comfortable for me.

    Arroyo — Again, how much are you willing to pay for mediocrity? Having said that, I think he would be better in Nats Park than in “Great American” — what a joke — and wouldn’t have Haren-like highs and lows.

    Colon, from the standpoint of performance, makes a lot of sense, as would a one-year deal. I have a visceral reaction to PED users, however, and coupling him w/ Williams’s late-career indiscretions would trigger Gastro-Enteric Reflux Disease. I might be able to treat it with medication but he damn well better win a pennant for us.

    Halladay really did seem over the hill last year. Some team like Houston might want him as an ornament on their tree but I can’t imagine counting on him to give them 27-28 starts over the course of the season.

    My preferred route is a trade. Either for (A) some young pitcher his current team doesn’t want to take through arbitration, on the theory that by mid-season someone among the Nats minor-leaguers is ready to be slotted in if the trade doesn’t work out or (B), go long and trade some of the prospects for Scherzer, and sign him for five more years, or Price plus four years (Price’s drop-off from 2012 to 2013 bothers me a bit and I don’t think he had nearly the velocity at the end of the year he had in previous seasons). While I’m satisfied with Zimmermann’s performance neither Strasburg nor Gonzalez shows any of the capacity for leadership they might get from Scherzer or Price.

  13. adcwonk - Nov 6, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    At times like these, I’m glad I’m not the GM.

    I think I make a good armchair manager. But I can’t even pretend to be a good armchair GM ;-)

    • Eugene in Oregon - Nov 6, 2013 at 10:32 AM

      Sure you can. Armchair GM is the easiest job in the baseball world. Repeat after me: “I would have signed Francisco Liriano.” “I knew Dan Haren was going to be trouble.” “I said the Nats should have gone after Carlos Beltran before he signed with St. Louis.” And the best part is, to be an armchair GM you get to say all those things after — repeat after — the player has demonstrated his worth (or lack thereof). And if you make the mistake of saying something before a deal is made, very few of us are going to take the time or trouble to check the record and hold you accountable.

      • adcwonk - Nov 6, 2013 at 11:09 AM

        +1
        ;-)

  14. Section 222 - Nov 6, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    Thanks for the reminder that Dan Haren was not the worst off-season pitching acquisition we’ve made. 2007-2009 were truly disastrous years, weren’t they?

    I like the idea of Arroyo. Also not sure why Nolasco isn’t on this list. Is he going to get a multi-year deal? After last season, I’d rather not go for someone coming back from injury. I really like the idea of Roark and Jordan as injury insurance for the big 3 and Det, rather than for our #5.

    • Section 222 - Nov 6, 2013 at 10:30 AM

      Oh, and sign me up for a trade for Price or Scherzer. That would be just awesome.

      • adcwonk - Nov 6, 2013 at 11:10 AM

        at the price of . . . what?

      • Section 222 - Nov 6, 2013 at 12:50 PM

        That’s Rizzo’s job.

      • adcwonk - Nov 7, 2013 at 9:50 AM

        But it can be unrealistic, and the asking price might be way too high.

        “Scientists should cure cancer this year”
        “How?”
        “That’s their job to figure out how.”

      • Section 222 - Nov 7, 2013 at 10:15 AM

        Sure it might. And then Rizzo won’t do it. What’s your point?

      • Section 222 - Nov 7, 2013 at 10:27 AM

        As for your cancer analogy, that’s just silly. My comment was a hope, not a demand. It would be like someone saying, “It would great if scientists could find a cure for cancer.” Would you respond “How?” to that? In any event, scientists are a lot more capable of finding a cure for cancer than you or I am, just as Rizzo is more capable of doing a deal. I’m just a fan expressing a hope that the team acquire a great pitcher.

        We had a whole long discussion of what might or might not be a fair price. Where were you for that?

      • adcwonk - Nov 7, 2013 at 1:18 PM

        out to lunch? ;-)

        (I’m pretty inactive here, usually, during the offseason)

        Sorry if I offended. I just remember too many comments demanding that Rizzo do this or do that without taking into consideration that there was more than one party to the agreement.

        Why can’t Rizzo sign xyz? (Umm, perhaps because xyz wanted too much money?)

        Why can’t Rizzo trade for player-x (perhaps because the player x’s team wants too much)

        That sort of thing . . .

  15. Doc - Nov 6, 2013 at 10:30 AM

    Most of these guys reflect the dream state optimism of the off-season, not the reality of a competitive season of baseball.

    Nats have been there, done that!

    Nolesco, maybe. Trade for Price, possibly. Otherwise let’s stick with our own home growns.

  16. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 6, 2013 at 10:39 AM

    as awesome a trade for price or max would be, I doubt we have enough talent to land either.

    • jd - Nov 6, 2013 at 11:04 AM

      Faraz,

      I think we do. The question is: ‘are we willing to package Giolito, Cole and Goodwin for a Price or a Scherzer?’

      I say: ‘let’s make a deal’.

  17. tcostant - Nov 6, 2013 at 10:55 AM

    Any talk of pitchers really needs to include Masahiro Tanaka. I know he will be part of the posteing system, but in only takes money to get home (no draft pick and posting dollars do NOT count towards the $189 tax cap. He he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 212 innings in Japan and is considered just a notch under Yu Darvish talent and is only 25 years old.

    http://mlb.si.com/2013/11/01/offseason-storylines-free-agency-david-price-awards/

  18. Eugene in Oregon - Nov 6, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    Putting on my armchair GM hat, I wonder if this isn’t the year to do exactly the opposite of what the Nats did last season (or the season before that). Last year, the Nats signed a well-known free agent to complete the rotation, then when he faltered (and Ross Detwiler got hurt) they reached down into the Minors to bring up several young pitchers. Given that the free agent pickings seem pretty slim this off-season, why not start with some combination of Messrs. Detwiler, Jordan, and Roark in the rotation, and then — and only if it becomes necessary — go for an early- to mid-season trade? Even if it’s for a half-season rental?

    • Section 222 - Nov 6, 2013 at 12:57 PM

      I think the reason this is a less appealing approach is that the pickings will be even slimmer at that point and the guys who will be available will either cost too much ( terms of players, not money), or not be any good. With the second wild card, the number of teams willing to part with a good starter is reduced.

  19. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 6, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    jd, none of the guys you mentioned are top 50 prospects in all of baseball. do you think rays would be willing to trade price (better pitcher than shields) for prospects that may not account for as much as players they got from KC? 2 of those guys entered rays top 10 while myers was number one and broke in big league last season.

    I don’t know how much Rays value the prospects we named but going by rankings, I cannot see us land Price.

    • jd - Nov 6, 2013 at 11:46 AM

      Faraz,

      1) The Royals also got Wade Davis in the deal which to them meant they are getting 40% of a rotation.
      2) The Royals over paid for Shields and Davis.
      3) Giolito will almost certainly be in the top 50 coming out this off season, he’s a serious prospect.
      4) Cole is very close to major league ready.
      5) Goodwin may only be a year away.

      That’s not a bad haul for the Rays and they will make that deal unless they can do better. If Texas wants to trade Profar + another prospect then you are right, we can’t match but I think we are not that far off.

  20. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 6, 2013 at 1:12 PM

    jd, we will have to disagree on this. I don’t think we have enough and even if we do, we should move them for a starting pitcher.

    I would like Nats to go via FA route but options are very few and many come with at least one limitation. I would say go big and sign Tanaka but Rizzo has never seemed interested in Asian market for some reason.

  21. Dogface - Nov 6, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    I would definitely like to see them sign Arroyo to a one or two year deal. Very consistent, and he won Cincinnati’s “Good Guy” Award 3 or 4 times, so he would be a positive clubhouse guy. In addition, I would love to see them sign Johnson to a 1year incentive laden deal. That way you have some competition for the fifth spot and some better depth in case of injury. Let’s face it, Strasburg just had another surgery on his elbow. Johnson, Detwiler, Roark, and Jordan compete, and whoever doesn’t perform goes to the pen or becomes depth at AAA, or becomes trade bait.

    • sjm308 - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:02 PM

      this makes the most sense to me. Not just signing one ? but 2 because you never know with pitchers. I still love what Arroyo did way back with the Red Sox and he has proven to be solid the last few years which is all we really need from a #4 or 5. I also like dogface’s thoughts on having real competition for those lower spots. You honestly just can’t have enough pitching and these two on one year deals do not tie us up long term.

  22. letswin3 - Nov 6, 2013 at 2:09 PM

    I can’t begin to do the pitcher evaluations that Theo and some of you excel at….with pitchers’s tendencies at various parks, and velocity falloff late in the season, and the like. But I still have three thoughts:

    1) We have a “slot” valuation of about $13 million/year (the Jackson and Haren numbers from the last two years) for that number 4 or 5 starter. So don’t worry about getting a bargain, just get a guy who can bring 30 plus starts and an ERA in the 3.00 neighborhood who will likely be healthy for a complete season.

    2) Don’t exclude the concept of Detwiler starting as the long lefty in the pen while serving as the starter insurance policy for injuries (someone suggested this earlier). This would, of course require either a FA signing or a trade for a solid starter…with the remaining starting slot to be filled by Roark, Jordan or Ohlendorf. This concept also serves to restrict the innings pressure on Det (the injury question mark) unless he were to be needed.

    3) Please don’t package Giolito in any trade. We invested in a guy, who was going to obviously need TJ surgery, because he displayed all the tools to become a major league Ace. He indeed needed surgery, and his progress since returning has been outstanding. If we ship this guy out in an effort to fill a 4th or 5th starter spot in ’14, it will haunt us for the next 10 years.

    I’m glad we have Rizzo and his staff to consider all of the possible permutations for providing the pitching tools to get to the ’14 promised land, because it’s way more than I can even imagine. On the other hand, I know enough to know that we can’t pass on the opportunity to get right fielder Choo in a Nats uniform for next season….and I don’t much care how it’s accomplished…he would likely be a be a season changer (and several more seasons too) for this club. Working him into the outfield could be accomplished by asking Werth to move to first base (I love this for several reasons) or by negotiating a trade for Span and moving Harper or Choo into center field. I have to occupy my mind for another 3-plus months with these kinds of thoughts.

  23. sjm308 - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:05 PM

    Not taking full credit for the Det in the bullpen idea but I have certainly talked about it a great deal lately. I think it makes all the sense in the world IF we sign a veteran. I do love the off-season for all the thought you have to put into helping Rizzo formulate his roster. Add me to the growing list of those who think Werth might make an excellent first base choice, especially if we can get either Ellsbury or Choo.

    Go Nats!

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