Should Washington make a big free agent splash?

This offseason, GM Mike Rizzo has repeatedly stated his wish to acquire both a centerfielder and an innings-eating starter in order to contend in 2012. The free-agent market for center fielders is thin, so Rizzo is unlikely to sign one, but the starting pitching market is full of options. However, would it be a wise investment for the team to sign one of those starters?

The Nationals are widely considered to be a team on the rise, with a young core of impressive stars like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. One of the benefits of having young stars like these is that they are inexpensive, and give the team a lot of flexibility. However, if they live up to expectations, they will be in line for massive paydays when they become arbitration-eligible, which could push the team’s payroll sky-high.

While the Lerners may be baseball’s richest owners, they probably do not want to fund a Yankees-esque payroll. With players like Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, Jordan Zimmermann, Harper, and Strasburg all reaching arbitration within a few years of each other, the Nationals will be paying a lot more for their team in the near future. As such, it is unwise to sign a big-money starter like C.J. Wilson or Mark Buerhle to a long-term deal.

The average age of Buehrle, Wilson, and Roy Oswalt is over 32 years old.  By contrast, the Nats have more players (3) on the 40-man roster under the age of 22 than players above the age of 31 (2) and players above the age of 32 (0). This is a team that isn’t built to contend next year, despite a promising 80-81 record this past season. A huge amount of talent, in players such as Harper and Anthony Rendon, is still in the minor leagues. Even signing a pitcher like Oswalt to only a three-year deal sticks you with a ~$13 million 37-year old pitcher in 2014, an inconvenient salary albatross right when the team could start to contend.  While Oswalt is the oldest of the three at 34, the 31-year-old Wilson and 32-year-old Buehrle will almost certainly look for deals longer than 3 years.

In addition to these considerations, signing a pitcher would likely cost the Nationals their 16th overall draft pick, though it is unlikely that Oswalt will cost a draft pick, as he will probably not be offered arbitration. In any event, a high draft pick is a hefty price to pay for a free agent hurler. If the Nationals are serious about bringing in an innings-eating starter, they could look at a trade option like Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez, who is under team control (albeit through arbitration) until 2016, pitched 202 innings last year at age 26, and was an All-Star. While trading for a pitcher like Gonzalez could be costly in terms of prospects, the Nationals have plenty of blocked players like catcher Derek Norris, who could tantalize any team looking to trade a starter.

The Nationals may be tempted to sign a free agent starter in order to bolster their rotation without losing prospects. However, free agents are extremely monetarily expensive, and could also possibly come at the loss of a high draft pick. The trade route is the better path to acquire a younger, cheaper, and perhaps better starter.

Topics: Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Derek Norris, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals, Wilson Ramos

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