At the strike of midnight last night, the Washington Nationals shook the baseball world by locking up former Tigers ace Max Scherzer, the best starter on the free agent market, to a reported seven-year, $180 million contract. With a talented core and a relatively weak NL East surrounding them, the Nationals made their play and they now possess one of the most dangerous starting rotations baseball has seen in some time. Once the ink is signed, Scherzer will become the ace of an absolutely loaded rotation that already features a trio of excellent starters in Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Doug Fister in addition to the solid Gio Gonzalez.
Unfortunately for fans who just want to see the Nats run hogwild on the National League this summer, it appears that the team's owners, the Lerners, don't want to keep all of these starters:
#Nats prepared to trade starter if they sign Scherzer. Zimmermann most likely candidate but one source says Nats would listen on Strasburg.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) January 18, 2015
For teams like the Yankees who need improvements to their rotations but didn't want to give over $180 million to Scherzer, this news has to spark some interest, even if some insiders heard news to the contrary. Morosi even noted that the Nationals have been shopping Zimmermann for "weeks" now, perhaps while hoping for the finalization of Scherzer's contract.
Although there would be some prospect cost behind acquiring a Nationals starter, there's no reason for the Yankees to ignore the possibility of adding one of them. This is a team whose top two starters (Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda) are talented but significant injury risks. After that, it's a veteran who might never pitch the same again due to degenerative knees (CC Sabathia), an unfinished product who hasn't pitched in the AL (Nathan Eovaldi), and the artistic stylings of Chris Capuano. The rotation is incomplete right now, but if the Yankees added even the worst of the Nationals' starters, it would be a boost.
Age as of Opening Day: 28
2014 stats: 32 GS, 199 2/3 IP, 2.66 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 182 K, 8.2 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, 4.9 rWAR
Career stats: 145 GS, 892 1/3 IP, 3.24 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 739 K, 7.5 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 16.7 rWAR
Current contract: Owed $12M in 2015, free agent at end of season
The most likely candidate to be dealt, according to Morosi, Zimmermann has been the teams's most consistent starter over the past few years and was the Nationals' ace in 2014. A second round pick from the 2007 draft out of Wisconsin, Zimmermann had a bit of a rocky start to his MLB career in '09 before it was revealed that he needed Tommy John surgery. He went under the knife that August and remarkably returned to the major league mound almost a year to the day he underwent the procedure.
The Nationals restricted Zimmermann to about 160 innings in 2011, and he was fully ready to go when they won their first NL East title in 2012. He was superb that year with a 2.94 ERA, a 3.51 FIP, and 4.7 WAR in 195 2/3 innings. Unlike Strasburg, he was not shut down at the end of the season, but he did not pitch well in the Nationals' crushing five-game NLDS loss to the Cardinals. Zimmermann shook it off and has been an All-Star pitcher the last two seasons for the Nats, earning Cy Young votes in both seasons as well.
The righty is one of the better pitchers in the game, and even for a one-year rental prior to Zimmermann's free agency, the cost to acquire would not be minuscule. There have not been many such deals over the past few seasons for a full season of an accomplished pitcher. The best comparison might actually be what the Yankees sent to the Braves to acquire Javier Vazquez in December 2009 a year prior to his free agency. As hard as it might be to believe, Vazquez was quite good for Atlanta in '09, notching similar numbers with a 2.87 ERA and 2.77 FIP in 219 1/3 innings.
To get Vazquez and reliever Boone Logan, the Yankees dealt a decent regular in Melky Cabrera, a Top 100 Prospect in A-ball (Arodys Vizcaino), and a relief prospect, Mike Dunn. I'm not going to pretend to guess who the Nationals would want actually in a trade, but a similar package would probably be about what it would cost. Another comparison might to be to see what the Brewers get in return for Yovani Gallardo, who is reportedly headed to the Rangers as a one-year rental; since Gallardo isn't as good as Zimmermann, that's the starting point. For someone as talented as Zimmermann, it would be tempting to pull the trigger, even for just one year. (And hey! He won't have to deal with as much confusion without Ryan Zimmerman as his teammate.)
Age as of Opening Day: 26
2014 stats: 34 GS, 215 IP, 3.14 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 242 K, 10.1 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 3.5 rWAR
Career stats: 109 GS, 649 1/3 IP, 3.02 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 746 K, 10.3 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 11.9 rWAR
Current contract: Owed $7.4M in 2015, under team control through end of 2016
At this point, most baseball fans can likely recall Strasburg's saga. He was one of the most-hyped draft prospect in history, and there was no doubt that the Nationals would select him first overall in the 2009 draft. The much-anticipated #Strasmas finally came on June 8, 2010, when he had a sensational debut, striking out 14 Pirates in seven innings. His first 12 big league starts were as exciting as any fans had witnessed from a prospect in quite awhile, but like Zimmermann, Strasburg also fell victim to Tommy John surgery. Fortunately for him, also like Zimmermann, he returned to the mound almost a year to the day after the procedure. (The Braves only wish they had the Nationals' luck with Tommy John rehab.)
Strasburg showed no ill effects of Tommy John in 2012, when he was named an All-Star and pitched superbly, recording a 3.16 ERA and 2.83 FIP in 28 starts. Much to the chagrin of their fans, the Nationals cut his season short in mid-September, preventing him from pitching in the playoffs. Some fans have even been a bit frustrated with his performance over the past two years, but he's pitched much better than his 22-20 record since 2013 indicates. He led the NL in strikeouts in 2014 and was fourth in the league in FIP. Make no mistake--Strasburg's still a strikeout machine who barely walks anyone. The idea of Strasburg in pinstripes becomes even more alluring given that he might actually be on the market:
Hearing #Nats RHP Stephen Strasburg is very much available and both sides believe it is time to move on. #MLB— John Perrotto (@JPerrotto) January 19, 2015
Unfortunately, Strasburg would be even more difficult to acquire than Zimmermann, as he has two years of team control remaining and trading him away would send shockwaves. To get James Shields for two years of control (and then-starter Wade Davis), the Royals sent away an impressive package of four prospects to the Rays, led by Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi. It was, of course, considered a high cost at the time, but to get Strasburg, imagine a similar caliber package in return. Although I doubt the Yankees have enough high-end prospects to actually receive Strasburg, he is someone talented enough that I would trade almost anyone to get him. He's that good, and fans can only prospect-hug so much.
Age as of Opening Day: 31
2014 stats: 25 GS, 164 IP, 2.41 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 98 K, 5.4 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, 4.5 rWAR
Career stats: 152 GS, 982 2/3 IP, 3.34 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 669 K, 6.1 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 18.9 rWAR
Current contract: Owed $11.4M in 2015, free agent at end of season
Few pitchers are as well-liked by Internet baseball writers as Fister. A seventh round draft pick by the Mariners in 2006, he's been among the most consistent pitchers in baseball since 2011. Over this four-season period, he's averaged 28 starts per season and notched a 3.11 ERA and 3.37 FIP while walking basically no one (1.7 BB/9). He's not a strikeout pitcher like his rotationmates, but his sinking fastball has led to a ground ball rate that typically hovers around 50%. Opposing hitters just don't make great contact against Fister's repertoire.
Strangely, he's been dealt twice in his career already for returns that weren't particularly impressive. First, the Mariners traded him at the 2011 trade deadline for a handful of players. The most notable of them were Casper Wells, who was out of baseball in 2014, and prospect Charlie Furbush, who is now a reliever. Then prior to last season, the Tigers traded him to the Nationals for a return that's still leaving fans scratching their heads: lefty reliever Ian Krol, the since-dealt Robbie Ray, and the long-since-DFA'd Steve Lombardozzi. Bizarre.
If the Nationals wanted to continue the trend of underwhelming returns for Fister, I would gladly embrace it. For now though, we can only assume that the package for Fister would have to be decent, even if he's just a one-year rental. He's not as awesome as Zimmermann, but he would definitely be an intriguing option as long as the Nationals didn't ask for too much.
Age as of Opening Day: 29
2014 stats: 27 GS, 158 2/3 IP, 3.57 ERA, 3.02 FIP, 162 K, 9.2 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 2.3 rWAR
Career stats: 180 GS, 1,089 IP, 3.59 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 1,072 K, 8.9 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 17.0 rWAR
Current contract: $11M in 2015, $12M in 2016, $12M team option in 2017, $12M vesting option in 2018
Gio Gonzalez's career to date has been fascinating. He has yet to reach free agency or age 30, and yet he's been traded four times already. A first round pick by the White Sox in 2004, he was a player to be named later in the deal that brought Jim Thome to the South Side from Philadelphia, and a year later, the Phillies traded him back to Chicago along with Gavin Floyd in a horrible deal that gave them 11 putrid starts from Freddy Garcia. The White Sox celebrated reacquiring him by trading him again 13 months later, this time to the Athletics in a trade for Nick Swisher.
By then, Gonzalez was the 26th best prospect in the game according to Baseball America, and although he struggled in his first two big league seasons, he rewarded GM Billy Beane for being patient with him. Then in 2010, Gio broke out with a 3.23 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 200 2/3 innings. He matched his performance the next year, when he became an All-Star for the first time. Right when it seemed Gio found his home, he was traded again, this time to the Nationals with Derek Norris and Tommy Milone (among others) going to Oakland. The Nationals did sign him to a contract extension shortly afterward though, locking him up for five years and $65 million while buying out a year of free agency.
Gonzalez was tremendous for the Nats in his first season, catching the eyes of traditionalists with his league-high 21 wins and the eyes of more sabermetric-oriented fans with his league-high 2.82 FIP and 9.3 K/9. He struck out a career-high 207 batters that year while pitching to a 2.89 ERA and allowing just nine homers all year in 199 1/3 innings. Gio was named an All-Star again and finished third for the NL Cy Young Award, behind only R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw. That's a hell of a way to make a debut with a new team. He hasn't been quite as flashy over his last two years, but a 3.45 ERA and 3.24 FIP in 59 starts are nothing to dismiss easily.
Will Gonzalez be as good as the other three starters in 2015? Probably not, but it's worth noting that he is the only lefty of the bunch, a factor that's always a plus in Yankee Stadium. (He's also only been on the DL once in his entire career; health is obviously a big plus.) Furthermore, while he would be the most expensive, acquiring him would be the equivalent of signing him to a two-year, $23 million contract with a team option for the third year. If that was possible on the open market, teams would sign him to that in a heartbeat. He would also probably cost the least in terms of prospect due to his longer contract, though again, he probably would not come cheap. Should he be available as well, it's worth it for Brian Cashman to propose a trade to bring Gio on board.
Beyond this quartet, it seems doubtful that the Nationals would trade pre-arb starter Tanner Roark (acquired previously in a now-laughable trade with the Rangers for Cristian Guzman [!]). It's even less likely that they would trade top pitching prospects Lucas Giolito or A.J. Cole. However, the Yankees would be remiss if they did not at least check to see if it's remotely possible to pry one of the above four starters from the Nationals' rotation. If they decide to not go with a super-rotation, the Yankees could really use a starter as experienced as any of the above.
Get it done, Cash. (I can dream.)