Rich Harden could be a fit for the Nationals in either the starting rotation or the bullpen. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Low-Risk Options Could Provide Much-Needed Security Blanket

After non-tendering John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny on Friday, the Nationals are left without a fifth starter and a long-relief option in their bullpen, and with a fair amount of money potentially going into bringing back Adam LaRoche, they may be pinching their pennies as they look to fill those needs.

It was reported yesterday by Jon Paul Morosi (via Twitter) that Brandon Webb and Rich Harden both intend to make comebacks in 2013 after battling injuries over the last few years.

Both Webb and Harden present high-potential arms that have had success in the past, but more recently have dealt with injury issues. Webb, 33, hasn’t seen a big-league game since 2009 with the Diamondbacks and Harden, 31, last pitched in 2011 with the Oakland A’s.

But despite missing time with injuries, both pitchers have been quite productive when they have pitched. Webb, the 2006National League Cy Young Award, holds a career 3.27 ERA and an 87-62 record in his 7 seasons. Harden, albeit a less-dominant pitcher, has pitched to a 3.76 ERA and a 59-38 record in his 9 seasons.

So, why not take a chance on one or both?

The Nationals showed last year that they like bringing in high-ceiling depth options when they inked players such as Zach Duke and Michael Gonzalez, and Webb and Harden should be no different. Even on major-league contracts, a deal that was highly incentive-based could prove beneficial for both the player and the team.

With Webb, the Nationals acquire a former ace of a contending ball club that could provide a veteran presence to a still-young team looking to reach the playoffs for the second straight season. Only once in his six healthy seasons did Webb pitch less than 200 innings (2003, 180.2), and Webb was also a top-two Cy Young candidate in three consecutive seasons (2006-2008). He knows what it’s like to be in the spotlight, and having him around could prove beneficial to young stars like Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

There’s hardly any risk involved here: Either Webb earns a roster spot and proves to be an absolute bargain signing or he turns out as a bust and the Nationals lose a small sum (relatively speaking, of course). Regardless, the Nationals don’t get hosed.

With Harden, the Nats have some flexibility. Harden is notorious for his nasty stuff, and boasts a career 9.2 K/9 IP ratio. He’s averaged over 18 starts per year in his 9 seasons, so he could be a fifth starter, but if the Nats want to ensure Harden stays healthy, they could also fill a hole in the bullpen and have a very capable strikeout man. Harden would likely be seeking either a minor-league deal or an incentive-based, low salary major-league deal, so he profiles similar to Webb in terms of being low risk/high reward.

The one other pro in signing a Webb or a Harden is it doesn’t handcuff Mike Rizzo and company the rest of the offseason.

It’s been highly speculated that the Nationals could look to trade Michael Morse in search of another starting pitcher (James Shields of Tampa Bay has been the most-common name) to fill that fifth rotation spot, and Webb or Harden wouldn’t really block such a move. The financial commitment to either would be slim, so the Nats wouldn’t be forced into trying to get their money’s worth by forcing either onto the roster. If they acquire someone better, it’ll cost next-to nothing to cut them.

Depending on acquiring a James Shields or a Zack Greinke or relying on Christian Garcia to produce and stay healthy just have to many “ifs” around them. The free-agent market has becoming increasingly more expensive for reliable relievers. Though there are so many more ideal options out there, none of them are shoe-ins. So, why not add a fall-back option?

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Tags: Brandon Webb Bullpen Rich Harden Starting Rotation Washington Nationals