When it comes to the recent rumour that the Washington Nationals will make a major push to sign Roy Oswalt, there are two things of which I’m certain: 1) The Washington Nationals need starting pitching; and 2) Roy Oswalt is a starting pitcher. Whether or not this situation and status make the team and player a good match for each other is far from certain.

The Nationals entered the off season with two starting pitchers under contract, Stephen Strasburg and Yunesky Maya (who combined to only start ten games last season). They also had two arbitration eligible starters in Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan, in addition to non tender candidate Tom Gorzelanny. Ross Detwiler, Tom Milone and Brad Peacock, all under control and earning close to the league minimum next season, also made starts for the team last year, and Washington brought back one free agent they would’ve otherwise lost when they signed the rejuvenated Chien Ming Wang to a one year deal worth $4 million.

There are some shiny options in the mix, most notably Strasburg, but on the whole, Washington’s rotation probably isn’t going to spark too many comparisons to the Atlanta Braves of the late nineties or last year’s Philadelphia Phillies.

None of the pitchers vying for a rotation spot this year threw 200 innings last season. In fact, over the last six seasons, the Nationals have had only two pitchers (Livan Hernandez in 2010 and John Lannan in 2009) throw more than 200 innings in a single year. Those type of results might inspire a general manager to say something like this:

We want a guy that has shown he’s a good leader, that can win in the big leagues. It’s not about having the best stuff. It’s about being able to pitch 200 innings many, many times in your career.

Over that same period since 2006, Roy Oswalt has thrown more than 200 innings four times. It’s just that last year wasn’t one of those years. Back troubles stalled the 34 year old and held him to his lowest innings pitched output since 2003. The velocity on his fastball declined for the third year in a row and his whiff rate and contact rate in 2011 were the worst of his career.

In other words, he’s on an expected decline.

With their overpayment of Jayson Werth last off season, the Nationals have shown that they either produce one of the more optimistic forecasters for future performance or they’re one of the rare teams willing to pay future money for past performances. Either premise isn’t exactly encouraging to Nats fans.

What is encouraging is Oswalt’s ability to adapt. As the right handed starter has aged, he’s had no problems changing his repertoire to find optimum results, including last season when he dropped his ineffective 2-seamer and went back to throwing more 4-seam fastballs. It should also be noted that after coming back from his second back injury, Oswalt closed out the season with a return to his former fastball velocity.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Oswalt’s value depends largely upon his asking price. Two similarly aged pitchers in Mark Buehrle and Hiroki (Dodgers or bust) Kuroda are also available on the free agent market this off season, and it’s difficult to see any team giving any of those three pitchers a contract beyond two guaranteed years.

I would have no problem with taking a shot with Oswalt or Buehrle or Kuroda, for that matter, at something approaching a guaranteed $20 million spread over two years. It’s just that the team shelling out ten million per season shouldn’t have expectations for something beyond a 3 WAR initial season and 2.5 WAR second season. Organizations capable of paying for that and managing those expectations would be the type that have a very good shot at competing for a division crown in 2012.

I’m not so sure that the Washington Nationals, given their division, are really in that place quite yet. This isn’t a team that’s one starting pitcher away from the post season. It’s a team that finished below .500 and whose best position player last year was either Danny Espinosa or Michael Morse.

The rapidly ageing Philadelphia Phillies probably won’t be the same ball club that won 102 games in 2011, but their not going to meet the Nationals half way from .500 either. The Atlanta Braves have a plethora of young pitching to either fill some gaps or acquire a desperately needed outfield bat. And all signs point to the Marlins being active in free agency to improve their team ahead of moving into their new stadium.

There are pieces there in Washington that will one day comprise a winning ball club. And while a two year contract doesn’t compare to the money that they likely burned in acquiring Werth, there’s not point in making another mistake the following off season as a means of covering it up or hoping that it reverses. Even 2004 or 2005 Oswalt wouldn’t be enough to drag this team into the promised land.

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