A preliminary look at the free agent pitching market

Although there’s been a bit of movement on the free agent market elsewhere, we’re still in the preliminary stages of the offseason around here. The Nationals have yet to add anybody to the fold, focusing instead on which players to add to their 40-man roster and which players to remove from the equation.

But now that they’ve completed those tasks, it’s fair to wonder when they’ll start moving onto free agency and addressing a handful of significant needs. (It’s also fair to wonder if they’ll be able to address any of those needs while the club is still for sale, but we’ve already raised that question and there’s not much more to say about that for now.)

So let’s proceed as if Mark Lerner has given Mike Rizzo the green light to spend some money this winter. Not gobs of money, but enough money to fill roster holes with actual free agents, not just bargain-basement pickups.

The Nationals have multiple needs. We’ll focus today on a particularly important one: starting pitching.

The 2022 rotation ranked dead-last in the majors in ERA (5.97) by a longshot, last in WHIP (1.563), last in walks per nine innings (3.76), last in strikeouts per walk (1.97), last in homers allowed ( 161). It’s hard to believe they finished with the majors’ worst record as well, isn’t it?

Gone are the days of the Big Three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, even if the latter two still remain on the roster. Neither will be counted on to lead the rotation next season. The Nats just hope Corbin can keep pitching every fifth day and give them a chance to win a majority of the time, and they just hope Strasburg can pitch again, period.

The future of the rotation is a trio of young arms, each of them promising, none of them proven yet: MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli and Josiah Gray. Provided all are healthy coming out of spring training, all will be part of the Opening Day rotation, perhaps with one of them getting the ball on Opening Day.

Rizzo and Martinez, though, made it clear at season’s end they intend to try to bolster the rotation with some outside help. They probably aren’t going to be in a position to break the bank on one of the top free agent starters out there (Jacob deGrom, Carlos Rodón, Justin Verlander). They could perhaps get themselves involved in the market for a second-tier starter.

Who fits that description? There’s Taijuan Walker, Zach Eflin, Noah Syndergaard, José Quintana, Chris Bassett and Ross Stripling, to name a half-dozen. All would figure to be in line for multi-year deals, so that could make it difficult on a Nationals organization that may not want to make any financial commitments beyond 2023 until it knows who will own the franchise after that. But if they are serious about adding a proven starter to take some pressure off the kids, those are the kind of names they should consider.

If they need to restrict themselves to one-year contracts, that list may include starters who are less of a sure thing, either because of injuries or poor performances in recent seasons. But that doesn’t mean they can’t still find somebody who would make them better.

Among the possible candidates on that front are Michael Wacha, Corey Kluber, Jake Odorizzi, Andrew Heaney, Sean Manaea, Dylan Bundy, Mike Clevinger, Jordan Lyles, Aníbal Sánchez and (gulp) Zack Greinke.

Those guys may not get you excited, but the Nationals don’t necessarily need someone to get you excited. They need someone to provide 150-plus innings with a respectable ERA.

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