Nats GM Mike Rizzo hasn't landed a pitcher this off-season...yet. (C.Nichols/Nats News Network)

Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo stated in the fall his top priority this off-season was to acquire a "top of the rotation" starting pitcher for 2011.  The free agent class was remarkably weak in starting pitching this year, and when rumors started floating that it would take $20 million a year to land Cliff Lee, Rizzo conceded that perhaps his lofty goal was unattainable.

Lee eventually signed his lucrative deal with the Phillies, though he reportedly left money on the table to do so.

That left Rizzo to go after a second tier of pitchers, all of whom would have seriously upgraded the Nats staff, widely regarded as one of the worst in Major League Baseball.

Ted Lilly. Javier Vazquez. Hiroki Kuroda. Jon Garland. Jake Westbrook. Jorge de la Rosa. Aaron Harang. Even Brandon Webb.  All second-level starters that would have slotted into the top of the Nats rotation this season, and fit very nicely behind Stephen Strasburg and hopefully Jordan Zimmermann to form a quality rotation for 2012.

The last "impact" free agent starter left standing?  Carl Pavano, and he appears to be headed back to Minnesota.

All went somewhere else.  The Nats were in on some, not on others.  But none are here.

That left Rizzo to pursue a trade for a starter.  He was hot and heavy for Zack Greinke, but lost out when Greinke decided Milwaukee was a more attractive option than Washington, D.C, even when Rizzo had a deal in place and reportedly offered Greinke a boatload of cash in a contract extension.

His next pursuit: Tampa Bay's Matt Garza.  But Garza's been shipped off to the Cubs now, for a decent package of prospects.

***Let me be perfectly clear at this point:  I was not in favor of sacrificing a huge part of the Nationals' future to acquire a starting pitcher via trade.  The prospects that would have been needed to sacrifice for Greinke or Garza would have crippled the Nats franchise for years.  They just aren't deep enough to make those types of trades yet.  Not that it hasn't kept Rizzo from trying.

All of which leaves Rizzo and the Nats at the unenviable position of signing a starter off the scrap heap of what's left in the free agent pool (Jeff Francis? Jeremy Bonderman? Dave Bush?) or (shudder) go into 2011 with the same crew as last year.

Right now, the Nats depth chart at starter is: Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis, and a pool of candidates that will rotate in and out as the fifth starter, led presumably by Yunesky Maya.

How Hernandez did what he did last year (3.66 ERA) mystifies.  In 2008 and 2009 he went 6.05 and 5.44.  Soft-tossing Lannan was sent back to Double-A for a few weeks last year and has a decidely limited ceiling.  Zimmermann is coming off Tommy John surgery and hopefully returns to the promise of his rookie year.  Marquis was indescribably bad (6.60 in just 13 starts) last season.  Maya has dominated Winter League but hasn't played competitively in over two years after defecting and has a flat fastball to go with his array of junk.

After that, it's the same names we're heard for a couple years now, trying to stick at the Major League level:  Garrett Mock coming back from a cervical spine issue.  J.D. Martin, returning from his own back injury.  Ross Detwiler and his hip problems from lousy mechanics.  Chein-Ming Wang and his "football" injury.

Underwhelming.

The rest down on the farm are all too young (or not qualified) to make an impact this year.

Rizzo went out and made adjustments to positions he thought were trouble spots last season.  He acquired Jayson Werth (for the GNP of Austria) to man right field until Bryce Harper ascends, and waited until Adam LaRoche fell to him to get a better glove at first base. And he picked up a couple bullpen arms to add to the competition there.

But he's failed to upgrade the one area on the team that needed it most, despite his apparent acknowledgement and involvement.

The "pitching and defense" mantra only goes so far if you don't have the first part.

23 comments

  1. Steve M. // January 7, 2011 at 1:45 PM  

    Many of us thought he cornerer himself with his impact pitcher goal.

    Cliff Lee was out of his league.

    Greinke would have been a trade that would have damaged the franchise long term.

    Rizzo needs to learn to under promise and over deliver like he did with LaRoche and Werth.

    If he can replace Nyjer Morgan, this team will be a much better team in 2011.

  2. Dave Nichols // January 7, 2011 at 1:51 PM  

    Steve, thanks for the comment. I don't think Morgan is going anywhere this season. Against RHP, he's perfectly serviceable (.361 lifetime OBP), but he needs to sit against LHPs (lifetime .292 OBP).

    his maturity and attitude are a completely different story. hopefully his off-season gave him some perspective and he come into spring training with a clear head.

  3. TravisPloeger // January 7, 2011 at 2:24 PM  

    Jason Marquis was injured last year- the combined three previous years he was 38-31 with an average ERA of 4.39 and an All-Star appearance in 2009 (4.04 ERA, 15-13) - as a ROCKIES pitcher, to boot! Plus, Jordan Zimmermann didn't pitch a full year, and is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery. Assuming the same poor production this year simply isn't logical. True, Livan will probably slip, but if we are going to assume that, than why can't we assume improvements from Marquis and Zimmermann will more than make up for it?
    I just think that this is being overly pessimistic. There are equal (if not more convincing) arguments that the "status quo" of pitchers from 2010 to 2011 will result in a real improvement from last year rather than not.

  4. Souldrummer // January 7, 2011 at 3:06 PM  

    I think it goes to just how undesirable a destination we are. Lilly chose to stay put. Vazquez chose to go to Florida. Did we really go after him? Kuroda chose to stay put. Garland never wanted to be here and dissed us last year. de la Rosa chose to stay put. Didn't Harang take a hometown discount to play close to home. Rizzo was probably in on Webb all the way but the drafter lost to the doctor.

    I think that they did make a good faith effort to upgrade pitching, but he learned just how undesirable we are as a nonwinning destination in a division most free agents consider unwinnable and how undesirable our farm is. It's his job to work on both of those selling points and choosing to hold the prospects after not getting Greinke and choosing to throw the money at LaRoche to show a desire to compete a bit more in 2011 are important. I don't see how there more than a couple of wins better than last year, though, so you'd have me at about 73 wins with the current cast of characters.

  5. Dave Nichols // January 7, 2011 at 3:32 PM  

    @Travis, thanks for the comment. I don't think I take an "overly pessimistic" view of things, rather look at things realistically. but you are certainly entitled to your opinion.

    Marquis is nothing more (when healthy) than a run-of-the-mill innings eater. he doesn't have an elite pitch, doesn't strike anyone out, and a 4.39 ERA in the NL over three years is nothing to laud, IMO. I was skeptical of his signing from the beginning (and you can go back and check my archieve for my ctitique. it's the same now as it was then).

    I have tremendous hope for Zimmermann. I am not assuming his 2010 production carries over. But until he proves his control and command (the last things to come back after TJ), we cannot be certain he is the same prospect as before the surgery. Again, I am hopeful that he excels and forms a formidable 1-2 punch with Strasburg in 2012.

    bottom line: Rizzo stated his biggest off-season goal for this year was upgrading the rotation, and he has not (yet).

  6. Dave Nichols // January 7, 2011 at 3:34 PM  

    @SD: you know my opinion on the subject. I think Rizzo drastically overpaid for Werth, and it has not helped one bit in attracting other free agents.

    you're correct there is the "loser" stigma surrounding the Nats, and until they grow from within they will continue to have a hard time changing the minds of those in baseball that see them that way.

  7. DJ // January 7, 2011 at 5:58 PM  

    I love the Nats and like most of the moves they have made this off-season, but there is no chance I go to any games or spend a dime on this team until they improve the rotation. They can not risk going into another season full of #4 and #5 starters, only to be backed up by a bunch of AAAA pool players.

  8. kfoutah // January 7, 2011 at 7:09 PM  

    You're not giving this rotation enough credit. Livan's performance was hardly "mystifying," he had amazing stuff, pitched deep into games and never got injured.

    Yes, Lannan was sent down to the minors, but he admitted that in the first half of the season he was trying to throw to hard. When he came back he was phenomenal, posting an era and win total that was better than Cliff Lee's reg. season stint with the Rangers.(Lannan: 5-3 3.50 era in 11 stats vs. Lee 4-6 3.98in 15 starts).

    Zimmerman is entering the his second year after T.J surgery, which is typically when pitchers get their arms back to full strength (i.e his curve and slider probably won't be flat like they were last year.

    Maya didn't pitch professionally for a year, then went through a whirlwind tour of the minors (something like 6 weeks?). Even in his starts in the majors, he would have one bad inning then dominate for 4 or 5. Sounds like rust to me.Wang's stuff was described as "filthy" in the instructional league.

    And Marquis was pitching with BONE CHIPS in his elbow. He posted an ERA over 20.00 then worked back down to a 6.00 (so he was pretty good when he came back). Marquis won 15 games in 2009; He's not a scrub, and should return to being serviceable.

    NO, I'm not saying this is an elite pitching staff by any stretch of the imagination. They probably wouldn't be one even if Stras was back this year. But if everyone stays healthy and performs somewhere close their potential, this team should be good enough to win 75-82 wins next year, which is all we really wanted for them this year anyway.

  9. Dave Nichols // January 7, 2011 at 9:05 PM  

    @kfoutah: thanks for the comment and i appreciate your optimism.

  10. Anonymous // January 10, 2011 at 11:45 AM  

    Fully agree with 'kfoutah', JZim, Marquis and Detwiler are all healthy now, none of them were until late in 2010, and then really only Marquis was fully re-habbed. Maya has since settled down, knocked-off the rust, and became the Dominican Winter League Pitcher of the Year. Lannan had an injury last year and returned with bad mechanics that he corrected before the season ended. Marquis and Lannan are very much 'Ground-Ball Pitchers', the upgraded infield defense should result in nice seasons for them (and Wang IF he does return and brings his old sinker with him). They do need a #1 Starter type, but things aren't as bad as some people think.
    DaveB

  11. Anonymous // January 10, 2011 at 2:44 PM  

    Dave,
    I know you were against the Werth deal because of the vast amount of $$$ involved. But does it really bother you that much with the (probable) ascent of Harper? He can always play LF and/or 1st. And as we know, getting up to the majors and performing there is never a sure thing with these prospects.

  12. Dave Nichols // January 10, 2011 at 4:18 PM  

    Anon, my big problem with the Werth contract is that it's scheduled to pay him through his age 39 season. Contrary to how Rizzo tried to sell it in Werth's press conference, players don't get better with age, they break down. Werth will be 32 at the start of the season and may be able to maintain his peak for a couple seasons, but most likely will be breaking down as a player when Harper ascends.

    Also, Werth is a very good player, but he is not elite. He's never been one of the three best players on his team at any point in his career. And his contract pays him as if he's one of the half-dozen best players in the league.

    Don't get me wrong, I think Werth will be a fine player for the next couple of seasons. But the end of his contract, which he has a no-trade clause for, will be an anchor on this franchise when they will need financial flexibility.

  13. kfoutah // January 11, 2011 at 8:59 PM  

    "Also, Werth is a very good player, but he is not elite. He's never been one of the three best players on his team at any point in his career."

    With all due respect Dave, you're dead wrong on this point.

    In 2010 Werth, among the Phillies (a team with several all-stars, that won the division and went to the league championship series) was in the top three in 9 different offensive categories. And led the team in four.

    1st in runs (106),1st in doubles (46),1st in Walks (82), 1st in Slugging Percentage (.532) 2nd in Home runs, 2nd in RBI's (85), 2nd in hits (165), 2nd in OBP. (.388), and 3rd in Batting Average (.298).

    Also, who cares how big his contract is? Our payroll is smaller than it was last year, and thats with the werth, and laroche contracts, and expected arbitration raises.

    Players bodies don't just break down because of age, they break down due to prolonged exposure to injuries and repeated long seasons.He hasn't abused his body through his 20's. Werth was a rookie basically three years ago. There is a long list of excellent players who stay excellent in to their late 30's (Ichiro and Ibanez among them), The chances of Werth being one of these players is pretty high. It was a sell job, But Rizzo and his PR department were correct on this point.

    And even if Werth is average or injured in his last two or three years, One errant contract doesn't ruin a team in a big market. Three or Four do (look at the Mets). The Lerners are among the richest owners in a league without a salary cap. One contract is not a noose. The Lerners have tried to expand payroll for years, but no one wants their Money (Texiera, Grienke, more recently). If the nationals inch closer to respectability, this won't be a problem in the coming seven years. Even if Stras, and Harper become elite, they extend Zimmerman, and sign two more pricey free agents, eating one 20m contract isn't a big deal. Its only a problem if we get a Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana situation. Either way financial flexibility is not, nor will it ever be a problem for the Lerners.

    Werth is our boy now. He's not a centerpiece, he's not a franchise player. He's a good player towing the line until a couple more good players show up. And if he gets rich in the mean time, I hardly see how that is a problem for us or the Franchise.

  14. kfoutah // January 11, 2011 at 8:59 PM  
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  15. kfoutah // January 11, 2011 at 9:02 PM  
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  16. kfoutah // January 11, 2011 at 9:09 PM  

    I didn't mean to say "our Payroll." Apologies for sounding like a terrible homer.

  17. kfoutah // January 11, 2011 at 9:30 PM  

    I also meant to say he's not "THE Centerpiece" and "THE Franchise player," sorry for clogging the thread.

  18. Anonymous // January 12, 2011 at 1:48 AM  

    kfoutah-If they go 500 with probably the worst rotation in the majors, Riggleman's contract will be extended and he will be MGR of the Year.

  19. Anonymous // January 12, 2011 at 1:49 AM  

    DaveB-They aren't that bad, considering we have such low expectations and winning 75 games is considered a success.

  20. Anonymous // January 12, 2011 at 1:52 AM  

    "Werth is our boy now. He's not a centerpiece, he's not a franchise player."
    -->He's getting paid as such and more. 15th highest contract of all-time.

  21. Dave Nichols // January 12, 2011 at 11:30 AM  

    kfoutah: I appreciate the debate. and i also appreciate you looking up the stats so that you had something to back up your opinion, unlike many who just throw words around.

    but i also think that if you took a poll as to who the three most valuable position players to the Phillies the last three years were, Werth would probalby finish fourth behind Utley, Howard and Rollins.

    I'll stand by my opinion that Werth has been a very good player for the last three years, but not elite. and certainly not worth $18 million per for eight years.

    you mentioned Ibanez, he's an interesting case. he did not have his breakout year until he was 30, then had some up and down years but remained fairly consistent through his 30s until he kinda fell off last year at age 38.

    it will beinteresting to see if Werth can follwo that path or if he declines at a more normal pace.

    as for the salary handicaps, you're complete correct in that it doens't matter for the next year or two, the nats have eliminated a lot of salary and will have an lower payroll this year than last. it's in the fourth, fifth and so on years of this contract, right when the Nats should be getting competitive, that this contract will hurt. if Werth is not producing and costing the team $20 million-plus, it's a tough contract to have to work around.

    yes, the Lerners are rich. but they are also very careful with their money.

  22. d_c_guy // January 13, 2011 at 12:38 PM  

    I do think the rotation should be "better" this season. Not "good" - the reason they can be better is that they were so lousy last season. Of the top six starters last season (by starts and IP), they had two with ERAs under 5.00! One was Livo (good luck seeing THAT again), the other was John Lannan (4.65, despite having the worst season of his career). If Lannan and Marquis regress from their worst seasons to their (mediocre) average, that's a huge upgrade for the Nationals, particularly in IP. With four spots devoted to promising (Zimmermann) and the three mediocres (Livo, Lannan, Marquis), the Nationals don't need much out of someone else, whether Wang, Maya, Detwiler, Stammen, or Solis, to be a lot better than 2010.

    Yes, the rotation could be a disaster - Livo could misplace the fountain of youth, Marquis could suddenly be washed up and Lannan's results be as ugly as it is watching him pitch sometimes. Maya and Zimmermann could flop or get hurt, and Wang never make it back. But even then we have to dig a lot deeper to get to the Matt Chico, Shairon Martis level of starter that the team has used in the past. And let's not even mention Levale Speigner.

    Of course, it's just as easy to say that Marquis becomes the guy who pitched in Colorado, Lannan holds the magic of his last couple of months, Livo racquetballs his way to another season of junk throwing effectiveness, Zimmermann and Maya fulfill their (very different) levels of promise and after Marquis is flipped for future talent Wang and Solis arrive and propel the Nats to a playoff birth.

    I don't expect either the best- or worst-case scenarios in 2011. I do expect that the rotation will be mediocre. Which (sad to say) will actually be significant improvement.

  23. Dave Nichols // January 13, 2011 at 1:02 PM  

    dc guy, thanks for the input. too many people expect best-case scenario when projecting, glad you can keep things in perspective.