The high-end shopping is limited among starting pitchers who are or could be free agents. If ranked by WAR across the last two seasons, Charlie Morton, who is awaiting word from Tampa Bay on his contract option, comes in as the leader. He is 37 years old and may retire.
Trevor Bauer, coming off an exemplary 2020, is next. Then the list quickly descends from decent to solid to fingers crossed.
So, let’s pick five less-talked about names from those who could be available to see how they might fit with the Nationals. And, something to remember is the Nationals turned down Aníbal Sánchez’s $12.5 million 2021 option. That helps give a sense of how much they would like to spend on this spot in order to stay under the Competitive Balance Tax and still fill other needs.
José Quintana, LHP Quintana’s shift from the South Side to the North Side of Chicago did not go well. Four years with the Cubs produced a 4.24 ERA and a lot of boos. Quintana’s strikeouts per nine innings also took a significant step back once he switched teams. At this point, he is a back-end starter, which is exactly what the Nationals are looking for.
His fastball usage went down significantly while with the Cubs, though his average velocity held. Quintana added a slider in 2019, when he set a career-high in walks per nine innings. He does not have dominating natural stuff, so command is paramount for him. The Nationals could also use another left-handed option in the rotation.
James Paxton, LHP The injury flags are up for Paxton after February back surgery was followed by a Grade 1 flexor strain in August that ended his miserable season after five starts. His agent, Scott Boras, recently declared him healthy to NJ Advanced Media.
Paxton’s hefty strikeout numbers have held from Seattle to New York. Though, he is a significant risk at this point after the two injuries, especially as a large pitcher. But, his cost may be so low that the gamble is warranted.
Kevin Gausman, RHP Gausman is the opposite of Paxton. A recent upswing, particularly in 2020, has re-established his value.
He struck out 79 batters in 59 ⅔ innings last season for San Francisco. That’s 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings, besting his 11.7 per nine last season for Cincinnati (in just 22 1/3 innings, though).
Gausman’s changeup usage went up eight percent in 2020. His four-seam fastball usage went down six percent to make room for the changeups. Though, his average fastball speed remained a heated 95.1 mph.
At this point, Gausman, a former first-round pick entering his age-30 season, could be a quality value play for the Nationals or any other team that can put him toward the back of their rotation.
Robbie Ray, LHP The former Nationals farmhand enters free agency following a rough 2020.
Ray finished with a 6.62 ERA in 11 starts -- seven for Arizona and four for Toronto after he was traded to the Blue Jays at the Aug. 31 deadline.
He has never pitched more than 174 ⅓ innings in a regular season. When he does pitch, Ray piles up strikeouts and walks. If his command ever came in line with his stuff, he could become one of the league’s upper-tier pitchers. It’s yet to happen.
So, he’s destined for the middle of a team’s rotation 10 years after the Nationals drafted him out of high school in the 12th round.
Corey Kluber, RHP Among those signed while surrounded by a flurry of caveats could be Corey Kluber. He pitched one inning in 2020 because of a Grade 2 teres major strain in his right shoulder. A report from WEEI in Boston said Kluber is in line for a normal offseason routine despite the injury. He’s made just eight starts across the last two seasons, pitching a total of 36 ⅔ innings. A comeback line drive broke his forearm in 2019.
The Rangers are expected to decline his $18 million option, according to MLB.com. That drops Kluber into the free agent market as perhaps its greatest curiosity. Who is he entering his age-35 season? Kluber finished among the American League Cy Young finalists every year from 2016-2018, winning his second Cy Young Award in 2017. So, what to make of a player with that pedigree derailed by injuries -- one freak, one concerning -- the last two years? And, more important, how much to pay him?