Well, the Winter Meetings have come and gone, and although many of the top free agents, in particular Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, and Michael Bourn, are still looking for homes, there have been plenty of significant moves, and there remains potential for more. Rather than try to work out a trade with Tampa Bay for James Shields, the Nationals spent an equivalent amount of money ($13 million for one year) to sign Dan Haren, and didn't have to give up Michael Morse or anyone else to get him. If his 2012 back issues are behind him, Haren should be exactly what the Nationals needed, a strike-throwing workhorse who can miss bats and provide 3-5 wins above replacement pitching in the National League. They did make a cunning move to trade Alex Meyer, their best pitching prospect (albeit one who may wind up in the bullpen) for Minnesota's Denard Span, a strong defensive center fielder who gets on base through a high batting average on balls in play, and who, importantly, doesn't strike out much.
There remains the issue of pitching depth, however. The rotation of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Haren, and Detwiler should be the best in the league, and probably the best in baseball. But none of those guys lost any time to injury in 2012, something that is unlikely to happen twice. Sure, there was the innings cap for Strasburg, and a mid-season experiment with Chien-Ming Wang cost Detwiler a few starts, but the entire staff stayed healthy throughout the year. Now, if someone gets hurt, the guy who's going to step in and fill their spot is...Zach Duke? Christian Garcia? Yunesky Maya? Duke should capably fill Tom Gorzelanny's spot as the lefty long man out of the pen, but he was fairly average as a starter in Syracuse last year. People within the organization like Garcia, but he's a 27-year-old pitcher who threw all of 65 innings this year across three levels, exclusively in relief. And Maya was no more impressive as a starter at Syracuse than Duke. Those are not exactly inspiring options, and the lack of someone better than mere replacement-level means that the Nationals could be one pitching injury away from seeing their potential juggernaut turn into a merely good-to-very good team. How to fix this?
Assuming that they do, in fact, re-sign Adam LaRoche (and all signs point to it eventually happening), the Nationals will have one obvious trade chip in Morse, who offers a big bat and a very reasonable contract (one year, $6.75 million). But the Rays, the team with the most solid pitchers to trade, are unlikely to give up several cost-controlled years of , say, Alex Cobb for just one year of Morse (however big a need he would fill). So how about another team? The Arizona Diamondbacks have a surplus of pitchers, but they also have a surplus of outfielders; what they really need is a shortstop. Although it would cost them a little on defense and a little more on offense, the Nationals could give Arizona a shortstop. My proposal is...
Washington trades INF Danny Espinosa to Arizona for RHP Trevor Bauer
Bauer, who will be 22 in January, was drafted third overall by Arizona in 2011 out of UCLA. Although not a big pitcher, he has a powerful arm, sitting around 94 miles per hour as a starter with his fastball, balanced by an impressive variety of off-speed pitches for someone so young (he has four). Bauer has major upside; he has struck out 11.35/9 across four professional levels thus far, including the majors, in what amounts to not quite a full season's work (172 IP). The issue is his control; in those 172 innings, Bauer has walked a rather staggering 86 men, exactly one every other inning. Like fellow undersized flame-thrower (or former flame-thrower) Tim Lincecum, Bauer follows a rather unique conditioning regimen, which in his case is heavy on stretching and long-tossing. He has apparently not been entirely receptive to Arizona's methods of trying to improve his control, and it may be a change of scenery is all he needs. As such a high draft pick, he was signed to a major league contract that pays him about $1.2 million through 2015, when he will be eligible for arbitration. That is a small price to pay for a 22-year-old with upside who would (ideally) get most or all of 2013 to iron out his control issues in Syracuse before replacing Haren when the latter's contract expires.
So why Espinosa? For one, the Diamondbacks need a shortstop, and the Nationals have two of them in their infield (Espinosa was drafted as a shortstop). For another, he offers power and speed (44 home runs and 37 stolen bases in just over two seasons), as well as an excellent glove, at a very reasonable price ($500K in 2013, after which he is eligible for arbitration). The cost, of course, comes in strikeouts, as Espinosa had a league-leading 189 of them in 2012. Still, he has provided more than two wins above replacement in each of his two seasons, and he won't be 26 until April, meaning that he still has a couple of years to get better. And boom, the Nats have solved their pitching depth problem, while Arizona gets their shortstop. Of course, what then do the Nats do with the hole in their lineup?
The Nationals could fill the hole made at second base in the short term with Steve Lombardozzi, a 24-year-old singles hitter who should duplicate all of Espinosa's numbers except his home runs and his strikeouts. In the long term, Lombo might be more cut out to be a utility infielder, but in any case by spring 2014 (if not sooner) the Nats will be facing a dilemma with the impending arrival of Anthony Rendon, a talented hitter whose position is currently manned by Ryan Zimmerman, under contract through 2019. Perhaps one of them could move to second, although both carry injury risks. Zimmerman's throwing shoulder acted up throughout the 2012 season, requiring eventual surgery, and Rendon's ankle and shoulder issues have caused him to miss significant time since college. But if one of them (likely Rendon) is willing to make the switch, it would give the Nationals dangerous bats at every spot in the lineup, and Lombardozzi could return to being a super-utility man.
Unless the Nats want to roll the dice on someone like Francisco Liriano (another guy who has control issues to work out), the free agent market is pretty bereft of starting pitchers who could be stashed in AAA or long relief until an emergency situation arises. If they can work out a trade centered on these two principals, however, both teams will solve their immediate needs, and both Bauer and Espinosa will get the chance for a fresh start that they each may need.