Nationals could use Blue Jays’ Robbie Ray signing as a template

But it mattered in one tiny corner of the universe, where, because of the coronavirus pandemic and stingy owners, the market is moving ...



But it mattered in one tiny corner of the universe, where, because of the coronavirus pandemic and stingy owners, the market is moving no faster than the average baseball game. Ray, a left-handed starter, was the trailblazer of what could be a quiet and frustrating winter for players. Two Novembers ago, MLB steeled for an offseason that left big stars waiting for big contracts and the sport’s “middle class” in the cold. Now, with teams purporting losses from a lack of fans in 2020, it’s hard to guess who may benefit from another spending pause.

The Blue Jays, for one, may slightly raise their hand. They landed Ray on a low-risk contract, padding their rotation with a 29-year-old whose command slipped last summer. Yet when he’s going well, Ray is a solid fourth or fifth starter with a knack for eating innings. A lot of teams could use that pitcher, the Washington Nationals included. The signing gives them a template beyond the number of years or average annual value Ray received. Timing is the key element here.

In their slow and subtle way, the Blue Jays crashed a stalled market to grab Ray. In November of 2018, the fall before the Nationals won the World Series, they used a similar situation to make five moves by the end of the month. They traded for reliever Kyle Barraclough, signed reliever Trevor Rosenthal, signed catcher Kurt Suzuki, traded for catcher Yan Gomes and signed Patrick Corbin, one of the best available starters, while most clubs were still hatching their plans.

“We’re very impatient people,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said on Dec. 1, 2018, when he was on the verge of trading starter Tanner Roark, signing first baseman Matt Adams and, five days later, veteran starter Aníbal Sánchez. “We have a wish list, and we try to get things done. When you see something that makes sense for you …”

Rizzo stopped that thought to break down the Barraclough and Rosenthal additions. The point, though, was that the Nationals don’t waste time when a player fits.

They broke from that last offseason, when they came off a title and wound up re-signing Stephen Strasburg, Gomes, Howie Kendrick, Daniel Hudson, Ryan Zimmerman and Asdrúbal Cabrera. Most of their moves happened in the first week of January. But this winter, with eight obvious holes to fill, Rizzo could revert to his impatient ways. That of course depends on whether he has the mandate to spend as usual, which is the only way for Washington to bury a down year and contend as it has for a decade now.

And in that line of thinking, the rotation would be a good place to start. The Nationals declined a $12 million option for Sánchez in late October. The righty will be 37 next spring and just finished a two-year, $19 million contract that looked smart once Sánchez surged through the back half of 2019 and almost threw a no-hitter in the National League Championship Series. But replacing him is a smart choice, too, and the internal options are slim.

Per annual tradition, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde should have a chance to be the fifth starter in 2021. Austin Voth, another frequent candidate, may have fumbled away his opportunity this past season. That leaves a spot between Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, and whoever prevails between Ross, Fedde and possibly Voth. Ray, drafted by Rizzo in the 12th round of the 2010 draft, could have fit nicely. The remaining pool includes Charlie Morton, James Paxton and Rick Porcello among many, many others.

That’s to say there is no shortage of veteran starters who, like Ray, may hunt a one-year deal with a decent-sized salary. There’s also a large bunch who, like Sánchez, could want two to three years and around $8 million a season. Morton, 36, could be the most expensive of the first group after a strong playoff run with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Nationals considered him before signing Sánchez, but didn’t spring for the two-year, $30 million deal Morton signed with the Rays. Alex Wood, a 29-year-old lefty, is available and was nearly acquired by the Nationals at the 2019 trade deadline. Jake Odorizzi, 30, is another younger free agent who could fill the gap for a few years at a fair price.

Then there’s Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman, who received qualifying offers from the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, respectively, and would thus cost teams a draft pick upon signing them. The Nationals could even lean on familiarity in the coming weeks and months. Veterans Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Tommy Millone are each on the market. Gonzalez and Zimmermann, once staples of Washington’s rotation, could come cheap and be late-career reclamation projects, though it’s unlikely the Nationals turn to them for help. Millone — a 33-year-old lefty who’s made two stops in Washington and was drafted by the club in 2008 — was solid for the Baltimore Orioles last summer before he was dealt to the Atlanta Braves at the deadline.

The point is that, yes, the Nationals could leap into the mix right now and address a glaring need. They could consider their former selves, the quick spenders of a not-so-distant past, and turn an unmoving market into their own inefficiency. And thanks to the Blue Jays, they wouldn’t even have to lead the way.

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Newsrust: Nationals could use Blue Jays’ Robbie Ray signing as a template
Nationals could use Blue Jays’ Robbie Ray signing as a template
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