The Washington Nationals are in something of a transitional period as a franchise. They haven’t been above .500 since 2003, when they were still in Montreal. They have been subject to relatively low attendance numbers the last few years, but they seem to be gaining an ever-growing foothold in the Washington market. This is a team with young talent (Strasburg, Harper) and established superstars (Ryan Zimmerman). They seem to be just a few pieces away from contending for the city of Washington’s first pennant since 1933, when the Washington Senators (the version that later became the Twins) took the AL. To really get them moving in the right direction and reestablish Washington as a true baseball town, however, I’m of the opinion that this team should try to make a big splash.
The place to do it, I believe, is in the starting rotation. Nationals starters 8.5 WAR in 2010 was the fifth-worst total in baseball, and their 4.40 FIP ranked them fourth-worst in the NL. Nats starters struck out just 5.61 batters per nine, third worst in baseball, and allowed a 20.5% line drive rate that was the worst in the game by almost a full percentage point.
The Nationals need a starter who can cause a 2008 election-sized splash in DC and put some serious butts in the seats. They need an ace to top the rotation while Stephen Strasburg rehabilitates after his Tommy John surgery that is projected to cost him most, if not all, of his 2011 season, and then take some pressure off of Strasburg by anchoring the rotation as Strasburg develops into the world-class hurler he’s expected to be. They’ve got some money coming off the books, with Adam Dunn and Christian Guzman (their two biggest contracts in 2010) becoming free agents, and they’ve increased payroll in each of the last four years, which gives me the sense that they’re trying to get their payroll more in line with other large-market teams.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, my suggestion for Nationals brass is to go after the biggest prize there is on the market. Adding Cliff Lee adds instant legitimacy to the team, showing fans and the rest of the league alike that the Nationals are serious about contending for a championship both now and in the future. I don't need to tell you how good Lee is; his numbers read like a video game. 7.1 WAR. 2.58 FIP. 18 walks in 212.1 innings. Lee is the biggest name on this year’s free agent market, and though many believe the Yankees will simply pay whatever it takes to get him, I have a feeling that the conversations at Yankee Stadium aren’t quite that simple.
Take a quick look at the Yankees future payroll obligations, specifically the 2013 and 2014 columns. In 2013, the Yankees will pay A-Rod 29 million dollars, CC just over 24, Teixeira slightly more than 23, 16 to AJ Burnett, and will almost certainly have Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera under contract for significant amounts as well. Joe Pawlikoski provides a very good description of the situation over at River Ave Blues, but essentially the situation boils down to this; in a few years, these players will all be getting tons of money for seasons in which most of them are already well over the wrong side of 30 and nearing 40 years old. While they may still put up big numbers, you simply can’t expect elite production from a 38 year old A-Rod or a 39 year old Jeter. By adding Lee, the Yankees would guarantee that they’ll be on the hook for upwards of $120 million dollars (and potentially a significant amount more) for 7 players in 2013, all of whom will be reaching the back end of their career. Unless they expect to continuously expand payroll from now until the end of time, this business model is simply unfeasible if the Yankees want to be competitive.
As the single most prized asset on the market, Lee will obviously have other suitors. However, if the Yankees aren’t able to continue to simply bid his price up, he may end up with a slightly less expensive contract than has been predicted for him, though he should still command five or possibly even six years, likely at $20 million per year or more. If the Nationals decide to truly go all-in for the prize of the offseason, it would be a move that could pay huge dividends both on the field and in the stands. Though they may be a dark horse in the war for the undisputed best free agent available, the Nationals’ Perfect Pickup is Cliff Lee.