The Fast Moving Off-Season and What it Means for the Nats
In recent years nothing has happened in baseball until the Winter Meetings. There was an established rhythm to the off-season. Everyone waited on the big name players to sign, the teams that missed out moved onto plan B, and worked their way down from there. In past off-seasons Dan Haren, Josh Johnson, and Jason Vargas are still on the market figuring they can get more money if they wait for Price to be traded, Garza and Nolasco to sign, and let the money trickle down to them. This off-season has been different. Maybe it was watching Kyle Lohse and Michael Bourn sit on the market for so long thinking they were worth more and settling in February and March for contracts worth much less than their demands, or maybe it is that teams don't want to get stuck waiting for all the top guys to move or be signed before they go out and fill their needs.
But what has really moved? Aside from Brian McCann the free agent signings that we've seen so far are the type of free agent signings that normally happen in January and February. Josh Johnson and Dan Haren are both risk/reward signings with a lot of upside but have the potential to not work out to say the least. Jason Vargas is a bottom of the rotation arm and the Royals had to throw an extra year on the deal to get him to sign early. All reports so far indicated that the Nationals are going to try and trade for a starting pitcher before signing one, and in the case of David Price that is a good idea. Price is a top five pitcher in all of baseball. The others: Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright, and Clayton Kershaw are all signed or about to be signed to long term deals with their original club. These types of players are not often made available and when one is a bad trade for them doesn't exist. At the end of the deal one team is going to have a top five starting pitcher in all of baseball and the other will have multiple highly rated prospects.
After Price the idea of a trade starts to make a lot less sense. With the trade of Prince Fielder clearing up money in Detroit it is presumed that Scherzer is staying put, at least for one more season, and while Jeff Samardzija has been a decent pitcher the last two seasons he is still 29 years old with a career 4.19 ERA and 3.94 FIP. Ricky Nolasco is going into his age 31 season and has similar career numbers to Samardzija. It will most likely take a four or five year deal to get Nolasco but it is essentially the same player for money whereas Samardzija is going to cost prospects. Also in Nolasco’s favor is the fact that he was traded mid-season and thus couldn't be offered a qualifying offer. Even though Nolasco costs more money and more of a commitment it is better to sign him than trade for Samardzija when thinking about the long term success of a team.
Why this off-season has moved so fast is because it is a weak free agent class. Teams aren't interested in waiting for and then giving up draft picks for mid to bottom of the rotation starters in Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana when they can just go out and sign pitchers like Tim Hudson, Dan Haren, and Josh Johnson for similar production on the field. There is no reason to give up big money, multiple years, or a draft pick for a number three starter when there are plenty of pitchers on the market who at worst will be a number five and at their best can be number two quality. Teams are motivated to move quickly in signing what normally would be seen as the scrap heap guys to avoid having them disappear and then being left with few other options but to give up the money, years, and draft pick to sign the sub-par talent that is out there on the open market.
The list of free agent players this off-season worth big money, multiple years, and a draft pick is Robinson Cano. That is it. No one else on this market is worth signing and that especially goes for starting pitchers. The Nats are in a good position in not needing a number one and have options open to them. It is interesting to see the market moving quickly but until a player the Nats are targeting has eluded them there is no reason to worry about them abstaining thus far. Keep in mind Rizzo runs a very tight ship and it isn't often that word slips out of a Nationals move until it is made. We've heard very little outside of speculation and rumors as to whom or what the Nationals are interested in acquiring. It could be that they aren't in on David Price or that David Price isn't as available as the media makes him sound and the Nats have already reached out to several fourth starter types. It could be that they've talked with the Tigers about Porcello or the Indians about Masterson or they could be waiting for the posting mess to be figured out and plan on putting in a high bid on Tanaka.
As with most of the Nationals moves under Mike Rizzo until something happens nothing has happened and sometimes his plan B's are better than his plan A's (see: Gonzalez, Gio). It isn't even the Winter Meetings yet, and it is starting to feel like the free agent market is dwindling but for the most part it has been the plan D type players being snatched up by teams that have no interest in the plan A or B players. While the Nationals may not be going after the top talent perhaps they are going after the second tier and that is still going to take some time. Those players normally sign within a week or two of the Winter Meetings and maybe they still do this off-season. Because January has moved to November doesn't mean December went anywhere and perhaps the rhythm of the off-season resumes is normal beat once turkey day has left us behind.