Nats Shoot For The Stars (Or At Least ‘A Star’) In Free Agency

Steve O Speak

According to some reports, the Nationals are looking to land the biggest fish in the Free Agent Market this year, and could be a ‘sleeper’ for Rangers starter Cliff Lee. From a need standpoint it makes complete sense for the Nationals to be in the market for Cliff Lee. Their starting pitching was awful last year and desperately needs an ace. Even if Stephen Strasburg wasn’t going to miss all of next season with an injury, this is a team that needed a starter, and on top of that a bona-fide star.

The Nats have taken a hit at the box office the last couple of seasons, and considering their performance on the field it is easy to see why. Making matters worse this year is the impending loss of Adam Dunn in Free Agency and the aforementioned loss of Strasburg. With Washington’s next great box office smash, Bryce Harper at least a year away, the Nationals would do well to acquire a star. The problem is there is at most 3 stars on the free agent market this year (if you don’t count Dunn), and the Nationals are considered long shots for all of them. Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford are all on their wish list, but they are on a number of teams wish lists. Outside of that, no one is really going to motivate the Nationals fan base to start buying their season ticket packages now. Even if Washington were to trade for a good starting pitcher like Matt Garza or James Shields, it wouldn’t energize the base (though either would be a huge upgrade to their rotation). So that means Lee could be a National right?

Now there have also been legitimate questions about whether or not Washington can afford Lee given their low attendance and T.V. ratings, but I don’t see that as a stumbling block. In this Field of Dreams scenario ‘If you buy him, they will come’ (also winning couldn’t hurt either, and it is certainly something they haven’t tried yet). Also outside of Ryan Zimmerman, most of the Nationals starters or significant contributors are at league minimum deals or entering their arbitration years. The three notable exceptions are Josh Willingham, Ivan Rodriguez, and Jason Marquis. But none are significant long term deals (though they could resign Willingham longterm), so they will have even more money when they become free agents next year. While it will eat up a significant amount of payroll, the Nationals can afford Lee if they want him.

Although the Nationals have the means and desire, I don’t think I’m quite ready to say that ‘Mr. Lee Goes to Washington’ will be a headline this winter. The two front runners for Lee’s services are the Rangers and the Yankees. Both teams present Lee a vastly better chance to win a title in 2011, as well as having the money to give Lee the $20 million a year that he wants. That seemed like a pipe dream for the Rangers when they acquired him as they were being bailed out by MLB. Since then they have a new committed ownership group in place and made quite a bit more in revenue down the stretch and into the playoffs than expected. Outside of those two teams though the suitors for Lee get a bit murky (everyone wants him, but not everyone can afford him) among the mid-large market teams (or those that can be):

Braves- Atlanta has plenty of pitching and needs bats more than another starter (also it would kill their budget)

Cubs- Chicago looks to cut payroll some this season. Any big free agent will likely be a bat (i.e. Dunn)

Phillies- Traded away Lee last year because they couldn’t afford him, and went out and added Oswalt, not really an option.

Mets– A wild card team, they could be interested, but they probably need to dump at least one bad contract first.

Reds– Despite having a hole in their rotation and a little money to spend, Lee isn’t an option as he is too expensive

Brewers– Milwaukee needs an ace, but they are likely going to be dealing Fielder this offseason, so they might look to rebuild

Cardinals- St. Louis needs to add another arm, but they are looking at more of a dependable starter than a $20 mil/yr guy. It would destroy their budget.

Dodgers- L.A. already locked up Ted Lilly to good money, I don’t see them coming anywhere close to this market.

Giants- Not only would money be an issue, but let’s be honest that rotation is not their problem going forward.

Red Sox- Could be another wild card, but their rotation isn’t an issue, and they would need to move Dice-K first to make it happen.

Toronto- Blue Jays could look to buck their rebuilding trend, but don’t know if they can afford him, would still put it at unlikely.

Orioles– O’s could afford him, and they need him, but might focus on adding offense and going for a younger/cheaper pitcher for their rotation.

White Sox- Unless they make a couple of moves they don’t have a real need for a pitcher and will also likely target bats this offseason.

Twins– Minnesota could be a wild card given their new stadium revenues, but still might shy away.

Tigers- Detroit always looks to make a splash in free agency, but their biggest needs (plural) are adding protection for Miguel Cabrera.

Angels- Anaheim wants Lee out of Texas, but with their trades for Scott Kasmir and Dan Haren these past two years, they will probably save their money for another hitter or two.

While some of those situations could change with a trade or two, it is easy to see how the Nationals get mentioned in the Lee sweepstakes. The reality of it is they still remain long shots to land the ace. The Nationals might have a solid corps of young players, but few are proven commodities going forward. Lee alone would not have made this team a contender last season, and the prospects are worse this year without Strasburg and Dunn. Lee might also be wary that Willingham, one of the Nats few proven pieces is also a free agent after next year (though it might not be in the best interest for the Nats to extend him). Unless Washington acquires a proven young hitter, whom Lee will know will be there in the future, it is hard to see him coming to Washington.

I won’t fully count out Washington just yet, but Lee would have to really be sold that this is the right fit for him, and the Nationals will have to open up their checkbooks big time for this to happen. As a Nats fan, I will say seeing Lee on opening day would be a huge boost for morale, but I won’t get my hopes up until he signs on the dotted line.

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