Nationals Free Agency Plan:
In terms of desire the Nationals Free Agency plan would be as simple as resigning Adam Dunn, and signing Cliff Lee, but unfortunately it isn’t as easy as that. Dunn is going to want 4 years on the market, and he will get it despite the glut of available free agent 1B. Lee is going to be pursued hard by the Rangers and Yankees and the Nationals are going to have to overpay (likely make him the highest paid pitcher) for them to have any shot at signing him. These are their remaining free agent and trade targets that could be used in conjunction with or in lieu of signing Dunn and Lee.
My top priority would be to try to swing a deal for a young star player, with Colby Rasmus my top choice. While their are other options like trading for a young first baseman (Billy Butler, Yonder Alonso etc.) they aren’t nearly as attractive as Rasmus. Not to mention first base is the one hole you can actually fill in free agency. With Lance Berkman, Carlos Pena, Aubrey Huff, and Adam LaRoche on the market ‘replacing’ Dunn is easier than filling any other need on this roster. My top choice is Huff, with Berkman and LaRoche close behind. Pena could be a great bounce back candidate, or he could be a hole in the middle of your lineup.
Whether they add Cliff Lee or not the Nationals should look to move Josh Willingham, while he still has value and find a younger option in left-field. Now obviously you only move Willingham if he is part of a big trade (Rasmus or some other young talent). He will be tough to part with, but they need to move on if they want to compete going forward. There is no easy fix in free agency (best available LF options would be Johnny Damon and Bill Hall), so you’d have to acquire a replacement via trade. While options like Alex Gordon and Allen Craig should be on the table, one interesting name to watch is Grady Sizemore.
Injuries have slowed Sizemore’s career and probably no longer made him a viable option in CF, but he hits well enough for a corner outfield job (and still has the wheels to be good defensively there). Given his injury and contract he shouldn’t cost much in a trade. It is possible the Indians try to hang on to him, till the deadline to boost his trade value, but that would kill their free agency budget. Sizemore comes with plenty of risk, but if the Nats aren’t giving up any major prospects than it is worth the money.
If they miss out on Lee the Nationals top pitching option would be to trade for a young starter, with the most obvious names being one of the Rays young starters (either Matt Garza or James Shields), maybe one of the A’s young starters, John Danks in a potential big deal or a lesser option like Joe Saunders (D-Backs). The Nats could try to buy low by picking up part of the tab on a struggling starter, Derek Lowe, Scott Kazmir, and Dice-K could all be in this category. If they go after a guy like Garza or Shields, or Danks they might not have the trade chips to get a young everyday player. If they go for a lesser option, this team will likely still be stuck in the cellar.
Although Lee is the prize of the free agent market there are a few other pitchers of some interest to look at. Carl Pavano was thought to be washed up, but he turned in a tremendous season with the Twins last year going 17-11 with an ERA 3.71 (pretty impressive in the American league). His numbers look a bit better than they are, as in Minnesota he had a strong offense and defense supporting him, but the league change should balance out any difference between the Twins and Nats. Despite his record he isn’t a true ‘ace’, but he is a solid 3, and brings more to the table than what Jason Marquis did last season. He will cost a draft pick (a 2nd rounder), but considering they would get two if Dunn leaves it is well worth it. Jorge De La Rosa, has the potential to be an ace, but his injury history says otherwise. When he is healthy and on De La Rosa is nearly unhittable, but health issues have plagued him his entire career. He too would cost a draft pick, and while the upside is there the injury concerns (and money) make him a bigger risk. Jake Westbrook would be the last pitcher whom I would consider to be at least a number 3 starter next season. He is just going to be two years removed from Tommy John Surgery, but considering his arm looked strong last season, there is little injury concern going forward. He is very similar to Marquis, though he does have an American League track record, that could translate well into the National League. He is a number 3 starter, but unlike the others won’t cost a draft pick.
None of these options are true Lee replacements, but Pavano and Westbrook interest me enough that I’d take a shot on them. Jason Marquis is gone after this season, as is Livan Herandez so having a stabilizing force in 2012 isn’t a bad option. While a trade could be in the mix too, I wouldn’t count out the free agent pitchers, as I don’t think the Nationals want to be in a position like last year where they didn’t have the arms. Right now you can’t count on Detwiler and Maya, and Lannan and Zimmermann are still not safe bets. If the Nats miss out on Lee they could look to trade for one starter and add another solid veteran. They might not have true ‘aces’ (at least until Strasburg comes back) but it will give them a number of 2’s and 3’s to round out the rotation.