Rizzo is looking for a “top-of-the-rotation starter,” who could it be?

The Washington Nationals are in search for a top-of-the-rotation starter to add before they enter the 2010 season asserted Bill Ladson in his mailbag segment Friday:

“Do you honestly think that the Nationals have a shot at the playoffs in 2010?
– Steve S., Rockville Md.

I can’t answer this question right now because Rizzo is not finished trying to build the Nationals for 2010. I know they’re trying to trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter. We’ll see what happens before Opening Day.”

This caught me a little off-gaurd as I assumed with the additions of Strasburg, Wang and Marquis, and the competition of Mock, Stammen, and Martin, the Nationals were all set rotation wise. With that this could either mean two things from General Manager Mike Rizzo. Either he is terrified that the club has already allowed 82 runs this spring training, or he wants to shock the world by making a playoff push in 2010.

Either way it leaves me questioning who they could be targeting, and who exactly they would have to give up. It’s a hard question to answer because the only type of team that would trade a top-of-the-rotation starter before the season beings, is a team that either doesn’t believe they can compete or one who is very poor.

Could they be talking to the Marlins?

It has been rumored that despite their talent the Florida Marlins may be looking to dump salary. At the top of their rotation is Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco.  Johnson signed a four-year, $39 million extension with the club this January, however reports have said this is no sign that the Marlins are not willing to trade the club ace. While Johnson’s overall contract value is greater than what he would have earned in arbitration this year (which he avoided by signing the extension), he is only slotted to make $3.75 million this season, which is likely a good deal less than he would have earned in arbitration. The extension then arguably may have been a cost cutting move for the Marlins rather than a plan for the future.

In 2011 Johnson’s contract balloons to $7.75 million, in 2012 and 2013 $13.75. Looking at those numbers, it might make sense that the frugal Marlins may be looking to dump the talented righty.

Johnson is an excellent pitcher. He throws a mid 90’s fastball (which rated 21 runs above average according to fangraphs), a hard breaking slider and an effective change up. Johnson, 26,  pitched 200 innings last year striking out 191, walking only 58, and posted a 3.23 ERA. His .306 FIP indicates he could have been even better. To get Johnson the Marlins would probably want a good starting pitching prospect who they can have under control for several years, perhaps Ross Detwiler?

Who else?

Cincinnati has strong pitching but think they can use  their rotation to compete, so it’s probably not them. Kansas City is out of it but they won’t likely trade Greinke. Cleveland is bad but unless they are looking to ship the underachieving Carmona, there is probably nothing there. The only other option I could see if the Nationals are truly looking for a “top of the rotation starter,” is that they may be looking to talk to the Cubs.

Chicago ace Carlos Zambrano has seemingly been on the block for years and while both Zambrano and Chicago seem to flip-flop on whether or not he will retire as a Cub. Zambrano could be had, but the price will likely be steep.

Of course there are also many rotation options left on the free-agent market.

-Brandon Looper: 194 IP, 5.74 FIP, 5.22 ERA

-Jarrod Washburn: 176 IP, 4.58 FIP, 3.78 ERA

-Pedro Martinez: 44.2 IP, 4.28 FIP, 3.63 ERA

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