After a brief holiday respite over the weekend, the Nationals are back to work today, still trying to address two significant roster needs: a first baseman and a starting pitcher.
The market at first base hasn't really changed, aside from the fact the Padres have signed Brad Hawpe to a one-year deal. The Nats may have had some marginal interest in Hawpe, but only as a worst-case scenario if everything else fell through. With San Diego's first base situation now resolved, there really are only two more teams in the market: the Nationals and Orioles. And, as luck would have it, there are only two more significant names still out there: Adam LaRoche and Derrek Lee.
Look for this one to be resolved at last in the near future. One guy signs with Baltimore; one guy signs with Washington.
The pitching market, on the other hand, remains less certain. The Nationals lost out yesterday in the Brandon Webb sweepstakes when reports surfaced he had come to terms with the Rangers on a one-year contract. Terms of the deal haven't come out yet, but it includes plenty of incentives, which is understandable since Webb essentially hasn't pitched in two years.
It's no secret that Mike Rizzo had strong interest in Webb, his former draft pick in Arizona who went on to win the Cy Young for the Diamondbacks before a shoulder injury derailed his career. Rizzo was willing to take a shot on two rehabbing starters, pairing Webb with the recently re-signed Chien-Ming Wang and hoping at least one of the two made it back.
Webb's removal from the market leaves Carl Pavano as the lone remaining free agent pitcher of significance, which may or may not be good news depending on your perspective.
If you're of the belief that the Nationals absolutely need to improve their rotation this winter, no matter the cost, then Pavano is your guy. He's seeking a three-year contract for roughly $10 million per year, a steep price for a guy who turns 35 in 12 days and over 12 big-league seasons has posted a sub-4.21 ERA only three times (twice in contract years, it should be noted).
While Pavano probably would offer some help to the Nats in 2011, would he really be worth $10 million in 2012 and 2013?
Let's put this another way: How excited are you right now that Jason Marquis is back next season for another $7.5 million? You might feel the exact same way a year from now about Pavano.
Now, obviously the Nationals need to improve their rotation. Rizzo made it clear at season's end that his "No. 1 priority" was "a guy to head the rotation, a front-of-the-rotation guy to put everybody in what we feel is their proper place in the rotation." So far, he's failed to deliver, and there's plenty of reason to believe he won't.
But is that the worst thing? Maybe not. While an Opening Day rotation of Livan Hernandez, Marquis, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann and either Yunesky Maya or Ross Detwiler isn't going to convince many scholars to pick the Nationals as NL East favorites, there's an argument to be made that the Nats would be wise to start the year with that group.
Hernandez and Marquis are signed and thus aren't going anywhere. Lannan, Zimmermann, Maya and Detwiler, meanwhile, all offer some varying degree of potential, and it's about time the Nationals find out once and for all where those guys fit in. Is Lannan a legit, middle-of-the-rotation lefty, or was his sub-par 2010 a harbinger of things to come? Is Zimmermann the Robin to Stephen Strasburg's Batman, or is doomed to be another promising young pitcher who never realizes his potential? Is Maya (who has been dominating in winter ball, by the way) a crafty right-hander who can duplicate Livo's career, or does he not have the stuff to succeed at the big-league level? And is Detwiler going to live up to his lofty draft standing, or was he a waste of the No. 6 pick four years ago?
The Nationals need answers to all of those questions. The upcoming year is going to be a crucial one for each of those pitchers, and it's make-or-break time for every one of them. The only way to find out is to give them a chance.
Now, if Rizzo is able to somehow procure a veteran starter who clearly is better than any of those options and fits into the club's long-term plan, of course he should pull the trigger and bump one of those guys out of the picture.
But I'm not sure how plausible that is at the moment, and I'm not so sure the Nationals' best option now might just be to stick with the status quo.