Nats looking to restock pitching depth

Nats looking to restock pitching depth
December 13, 2012, 12:30 pm
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In a public appearance at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Nationals manager Davey Johnson gave an update on the situation with Adam LaRoche and also discussed other areas the team may improve. Regarding LaRoche, basically there are no real developments in retaining the first baseman and whether he returns pretty much dictates the rest of their offseason. They also need a left-handed reliever, but nothing real groundbreaking there. All of this we already knew.

Johnson did, however, hint at a secondary goal that may involve making another trade. Here is what he told Elliot Smith of MLB.com:

"And, depending on what happens, possibly go after some young starters. Depth-wise in the organization, we've good pretty good depth. The only area we're a little bit short in is starting pitching."

The Nats had perhaps the league’s best major league rotation in 2012, but two trades in particular over the last two seasons have almost cleaned out their once envied stable of young minor league pitchers. When Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone, and A.J. Cole were shipped to Oakland for Gio Gonzalez before last season, it removed their two most MLB-ready pitching prospects. And sending Alex Meyer to the Twins last month for Denard Span took away their likely ‘next man up’ for 2013. Now the organization’s pitching depth isn’t anywhere close to what it used to be.

The Nats aren’t regretting either of the trades as Gonzalez had a terrific year and Span seems to fit a logical need, but they would like to restock their farm system. Obviously in trying to do that, Washington will have to give something up. That’s where “depending on what happens” becomes important. 

Johnson told MLB.com that “it all goes back to LaRoche,” which means what we have all speculated, that the Nats won’t pull the trigger on a trade until first base is settled. If LaRoche comes back then the Nats have plenty of trade options. If he doesn’t, then restocking the pitching depth might become quite difficult.

If they sign LaRoche, then Michael Morse could be the logical trade piece to try and acquire a young pitching prospect. Tyler Moore could also be dangled as his stock is fairly high at the moment. Moore performed well in a utility role all last season and his clutch hit in Game 1 of the NLDS got his name out there. Many believe he can be an everyday first baseman, but at the moment that is just based on potential. A 2013 affected by injuries or a hitting slump could change that. He will also be 26 in January.

Danny Espinosa was also mentioned in trade rumors during the Winter Meetings, but the Nats are reportedly not interested in trading him. He has perhaps even more potential than Morse and Moore given his skillset, age, and contract. The Nationals don’t want to trade Espinosa, but the right offer and two adequate replacements in Stephen Lombardozzi and Anthony Rendon may change their mind. The acquisition of Span also gives them a more balanced batting lineup, taking away Espinosa’s extra value as a switch-hitter.

Trading Espinosa right now may be selling high as well. He is only 25 with two full MLB seasons under his belt, a terrific fielder with power and speed, and under team control through 2017. But how valuable will he be if he continues to hit with a sub-.250 average and leads the National League in strikeouts?  

The Nats’ major league rotation for 2013 is set and they may have their sixth and seventh guys in line as well. Zach Duke and Christian Garcia, assuming he is successfully converted to a starter, will be essentially what John Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang were in 2012. But at some point the Nats will need another young pitcher to step in to the rotation, unless they keep signing fifth starters to expensive one-year deals. 

Right now Lucas Giolito stands as the Nationals’ best pitching prospect, the one who could be at the top of a rotation some day. But the 2012 first round pick is just 18 years old and had Tommy John surgery in August. He is at least a full season away and likely won’t get a look for the big leagues until 2014 at the earliest.

Lefty Matt Purke, 22, still has promise, but he has dealt with significant shoulder issues since being drafted into the organization. He is said to be ready for Spring Training after undergoing shoulder surgery, but his disappointing 2012 offers no guarantees.

Exactly how good of a prospect the Nats could get for any of their potential trade pieces is unclear, but it appears starting pitching is their primary target. The Indians just landed Trevor Bauer, the third overall pick of the 2011 MLB Draft, in a three-team trade centering around Shin-Soo Choo. Choo is 30 with only one more year on his deal than Morse. If the Indians could get Bauer for Choo, the Nats may be able to get a decent pitching prospect for Morse. Morse definitely has value with the ability to play multiple positions, including first base which features a thin free agent market.

Getting back a top pitching prospect like Bauer is probably expecting too much, but the Nats will be active in looking. And with several potential trade chips, each with significant value, they may have no problem restoring the pitching depth in their farm system.