One hundred sixty-six major-league free agents were free to begin negotiating with any club they wanted at 12:01 a.m. today, the unofficial commencement of baseball's Hot Stove League. But before you start scouring flight path websites to see where Ted Lerner's private jet has been, a word of caution: This is going to be a slow process.
Baseball's free-agency period stands in stark contrast to those in the NFL and NHL, where there's a mad rush of signings the moment the clock strikes midnight. Baseball players, general managers and agents prefer to take a more calculated route toward consummating deals, letting the market establish itself over time.
In fact, there probably won't be a whole lot of players signing with new clubs for several more weeks, not until the days leading up the Dec. 5-8 winter meetings in Dallas. But the groundwork is being laid right now, as everyone tries to gauge who's in the market for what and how much any given player is going to cost.
The Nationals' objectives this winter are clear. GM Mike Rizzo has said it since the season's final week: He's searching for a center fielder (preferably one who can lead off) and a No. 3 starting pitcher.
We've discussed several names over the last month, but let's start paring those lists down to the handful of free agents who appear to make the most sense for the Nationals. (There's also, of course, a decent chance Rizzo will try to fill these holes via trades. For now, though, we'll just stick with the free agents.)
Grady Sizemore: In many ways, Sizemore fits exactly what the Nationals need. He's a Gold Glove-winning center fielder who sports a career .357 on-base percentage and has hit leadoff for 703 of his 869 career starts. He's only 29 years old, and his return to the organization that first drafted him in 2000 would make up for the Expos' terrible decision to include him in the ill-fated trade that also sent Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips to the Indians for Bartolo Colon. There's just one hang-up: Sizemore is a huge injury risk. He's played in only 104 total games over the last two seasons because of a smorgasbord of ailments, and he recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. It's entirely possible -- maybe even probable -- that he'll never come close to regaining his old form. But if he did ... wow, he would be a perfect addition for the Nationals.
Coco Crisp: Crisp enjoyed something of a bounceback season in Oakland, stealing a career-high and AL-best 49 bases, but his overall numbers weren't that great. In particular, his .314 on-base percentage was his lowest in eight years. Crisp also had a whopping two outfield assists in 133 games. That said, the 32-year-old could be an affordable fallback option for the Nationals. And if nothing else, he'd still be an upgrade over what the Nats had in center field and the leadoff spot this season. (UPDATE: Crisp's agent told the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser today that his client prefers to sign with a West Coast team.)
Carlos Beltran: His name hasn't come up very much in the last month and probably for good reason. He'll be 35 in April, and though he played in 142 games this season, he missed considerable time in 2009 and 2010 with injuries. Both the Mets and Giants decided he could no longer play center field, so he spent the entire year in right field. Still, Beltran figures to find a club (most likely an AL team) willing to shell out good money over several years for his services.
B.J. Upton: Here's the thing about Upton: He's not a free agent, at least not yet. He's still got one more year of arbitration eligibility with the Rays. That said, there has been serious speculation that Tampa Bay might elect not to tender him a contract next month, which would put him on the open market. The question is whether Rizzo is willing to wait it out, perhaps losing one of the other guys in the process. If not, he could always try to trade for Upton, though his disappointing numbers the last three seasons (not to mention the fact his current team is thinking about dropping him altogether) suggest he may not be worth giving up much of consequence.
C.J. Wilson: Now that CC Sabathia has re-upped with the Yankees, Wilson is the consensus top starter on the open market. Which means he's about to make a boatload of money. The question is whether he's actually worth it. The upside: Wilson was the No. 1 starter on a team that just came within a strike of winning the World Series, he's a rare power left-hander who struck out 206 batters in 223 13 innings and he's still relatively young (he turns 31 this month). The downside: Wilson has only been a starter for two seasons, he's issued the second-most walks in the AL over those two seasons and he was decidedly unimpressive during the postseason. Is all that worth perhaps nine figures? The Nationals have to make that decision.
Mark Buehrle: The veteran lefty (he'll be 33 by Opening Day) fits the description of what the Nationals could use: a well-established, reliable starter who can set a positive example for Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann and churn out a good number of quality innings. Buehrle has made at least 30 starts and logged at least 200 innings for 11 consecutive seasons. He's won three straight Gold Gloves (for whatever that's worth) and owns a 3.83 ERA despite pitching his entire career at hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. The White Sox will make a strong push to re-sign him, but he's no guarantee to return to the South Side.
Edwin Jackson: Jackson's name came up as a possible trade target of Rizzo in July 2010, and his fantastic repertoire makes him an attractive free agent. But buyer beware, because Jackson is as erratic as they get, as we saw during the postseason. He's capable of either throwing a no-hitter or walking eight on any given night. (Or he could do both, as was the case on June 25, 2010.)
Chien-Ming Wang: Technically, Wang is now a free agent who can sign with anyone. But, as we've expected for weeks, he's all but assured of re-signing with the Nationals. The two sides are still working out final details, but the deal should be done sometime soon. If the right-hander can pick up where he left off in September, he'll be a key piece to the Nats' rotation. But is Wang's best good enough to slot him right behind Strasburg and Zimmermann, or would the Nationals still want to add another arm to be the No. 3 starter and thus slide Wang down in the rotation?
Yu Darvish: I delved into the Darvish Dilemma in a post last week, so no need to rehash the entire thing. Suffice it to say, the Japanese right-hander is going to cost a whole lot of money. He may live up to the hype and establish himself as a front-line starter in the majors, but he'd be the first Japanese pitcher to do that since Hideo Nomo.
Roy Oswalt: This would be an intriguing possibility for the Nationals, who could certainly benefit from Oswalt's experience and success. The only red flag is his back, which limited him to 23 starts this season in Philadelphia and probably will remain an issue for the rest of his career. If the Nats are willing to accept the 34-year-old won't be throwing 200 innings for them, he could be a nice addition. But they might need more of a sure thing out of a No. 3 starter.