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December 1, 2012 / Nat Anacostia

Can the Nats sign a free agent starter?

With first Edwin Jackson, and now John Lannan having departed the Nats and no obvious candidates in the minors, except for the possibility of converting Christian Garcia to a starter, the next hole for Mike Rizzo to fill is a fifth starter.  In an earlier post I looked at possible trade targets. With the recent trade for Denard Span, however, the Nats’ minor league system is starting to look pretty thin, so I think the chances of filling the pitching vacancy through a free agent signing have gone up. In this post, I’m going to look at the starters who are available as free agents, specifically focusing on pitchers who are pretty good. I assume that if Rizzo had wanted a league-average innings eater, he would have retained Lannan.

Here’s my list, starting at the top and working down. I give each pitcher’s statistics while starting for the last three seasons (2010–12) along with FanGraph’s “crowd sourced” estimate of how much the contract will cost:

1. Zack Greinke (age 29 next season, 3.83 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 8.7 K/9, 604 IP)

Estimated cost: $114 million for six years

Health issues: Social anxiety disease and depression; a fractured rib in 2010–11 offseason

He’s the best and most expensive pitcher on the market; he’s also frequently been linked to the Nats, though Tom Boswell claims that “the Nats barely consider it, assuming insane L.A. money will keep him an Angel or Dodger.” I still don’t have a good sense of what salary budget the Nats are working with, but if they were to sign Greinke, they’d be getting the best rotation in baseball.

2. Anibal Sanchez (age 29, 3.70 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 8.1 K/9, 587 IP)

Estimated cost: $52 million for four years

Health issues: Elbow surgery in 2003; labrum surgery in 2007; shoulder problems in 2009; healthy the last three seasons

I haven’t seen his name linked to the Nats, but he’s a pitcher I’d like to see Rizzo pursue. He’s a strikeout pitcher who would nicely complement the Nationals staff.

3. Edwin Jackson (age 29, 4.11 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 7.5 K/9, 597 IP)

Estimated cost: $36 million for three years

Health issues: None

In contrast to Adam LaRocheI’ve heard no speculation that the Nats have any interest in re-signing Jackson. But I think he does bring some advantages to the table compared to the other pitchers on this list—especially his health and relative youth. I wouldn’t have a problem with re-signing Jackson for three more years.

4. Dan Haren (age 32, 3.76 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 7.6 K/9, 649 IP)

Estimated cost: $36 million for three years

Health issues: On the DL briefly last season for “lower back stiffness” and rumors of more serious issues that have made the Angels surprisingly willing to let him go. Thinking about it, though, maybe there’s something similar going on with Edwin Jackson—the Nats seemed surprisingly uninterested in retaining him.

5. Kyle Lohse (age 34, 3.76 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 5.6 K/9, 491 IP)

Estimated cost: $52 million for four years

Health issues: Forearm injury in 2009; surgery in 2010

While Lohse pitched great last season and the Nats are rumored to have interest, I’d be concerned about signing him, especially to a four-year deal. Last season was by far his best, and over his career he’s barely been an average pitcher. Last season’s success reflected a .262 batting average on balls in play. That number is likely to revert to something closer to his career average (.297).

6. Ryan Dempster (age 36, 4.04 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 8.4 K/9, 590 IP)

Estimated cost: $36 million for three years

Health issues: Tommy John surgery in 2003; on the DL briefly in 2012 with a lat injury; otherwise, quite healthy

While a 3-year contract to a 36 year-old pitcher seems a bit risky, he’s been pretty healthy and pitched well last year—at least until he was traded to the Rangers at the deadline.

7. Shaun Marcum (age 31, 3.62 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 7.5 K/9, 520 IP)

Estimated cost: $20 million for two years

Health issues: Tommy John surgery in 2008; on DL for two months in 2012 with elbow injury

The recent injuries make signing him a bit of a gamble.

After that, we start getting to marginal guys like Joe Saunders, Francisco Liriano, and Joe Blanton – I suppose they’d be ok as fifth starters, but if that’s all the Nats are shooting for, I’d rather have seen Lannan brought back. Overall, this year’s free agent pitcher crop just doesn’t seem that exciting. The ones I’d be pursuing are the top two—Greinke, if they can afford him, and Sanchez, with Dempster as the backup plan (though I really don’t like giving 3-year contracts to 36 year-old pitchers). The others just seem to have too many question marks regarding health or consistency.

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