CFG writer and droog DWilly (here he is, in case you’ve forgotten), is pessimistic about the possibility the Nats will sign Belinski free agent pitcher John Lackey: “The Red Sox will be in the mix and they’ll bid him up, but only to make sure the Yankees don’t get him,” he opined during a break in the action this last week. “And for good reason: can you imagine the Phillies facing C.C.,Â Pettitte and Lackey in the World Series? Forget Burnett –Â in that mix he’d be number four. For the Red Sox, the Yankees getting Lackey would be theirÂ worstÂ nightmare.”Â Add the Angels to that list: Anaheim owner Arte Moreno says that he can afford either Lackey or third sacker Chone Figgins, but not both — making his choice a no-brainer. With the crosstown Dodgers taking a pass on Lackey that leaves theÂ Red Sox, Yankees, and Nats bidding for his services. Oh, and theÂ Mets, who are desperate for pitching. Bart Hubbach of theÂ New York PostÂ says that Lackey tops the Chokes’Â wish list, ranking well ahead of both Jason Marquis (who “badly wants to be a Met”) and Joel Piniero — the 31-year-old Cardinal slinger.
The Lackey-to-the NatsÂ rumor surfaced last week, when Nats beat writer Bill Ladson reported that the Nats “are looking for an ace who can tutor pitchers such as John Lannan, Ross Detwiler and Stephen Strasburg. Washington has been looking for this type of pitcher since after the Trade Deadine.” True enough, but Lackey won’t be cheap — and at least some baseball executives are questioning his health: Lackey got off to a slow start last year due to a sore elbow and he’s spentÂ a part of each of the last two years on the DL. And the price tag? The figures are all over the place, but current betting is that Lackey would ask for (and get) an A.J. Burnett contract — somewhere in the range of five years and $82 million. At the top end, the contract would max out at five years and $100 million, at the low end a Lackey contract would be for three years and $30 million. Lackey’s a tough, nose-in-the-dirt pitcher who could feast on N.L. hitters, but that’s a lot of change for aÂ potential sore elbow and a tutor. And it’s a lot of change if, after spending (say) $80 million, you have nothing left to shore up your infield or add to your bullpen.
Signing a top flight innings-eating pitcher had to be a priority of Nats GM Mike Rizzo — but it will do little good for the Nats to spend oodles on Lackey and have little left over. So a rejiggering the priority list makes a lot of sense: back in ’08, the Nats spent a good part of their season scrambling to put togetherÂ a roster that had Ryan Zimmerman strugglingÂ to overcome a left shoulder tear. Zim ended up losing 56 games, a nightmare for a team that has few marque players. While this unthinkable knock-on-wood scenario seems unlikely forÂ 2010 (knock on wood, and hard), the Nats’ unsettled up-the-middle problems — including the distinct possibility that wunderkind Ian Desmond might not be the solution to the Nats’ shortstop woes that they think he is — would stretch the Nats to the breaking point were something to happen to Zim (or Adam Dunn, or Josh Willingham, or Cristian Guzman).
Which means that John Lackey isn’t the only priority for the Nats, and maybe not even the top priority. The Nats need pitching and desperately, but if they want a tutor and innings eater they can find one among a free agent class that includes Jon Garland, Joel Piniero, Jason Marquis or even (gasp) Carl Pavano. Garland (just as an example) won’t be cheap ($25 million over three years), but he won’t be as expensive as Lackey — and the Nats can use the savings they might have spent on JL for Mark DeRosa. The more you think about DeRosa the more you have to like him, especially as a fit for the wobbly Nats’ infield. Forget for just a moment that he’s a helluva player.Â Remember, instead,Â thatÂ his glove work eclipses that of Desmond or Guzman orÂ Gonzalez.Â He can play short and second and he can spell Willingham in left and if worseÂ comes to worse (knock on wood) he can play third. And he can hit. Then too,Â taking a pass on Lackey means there’s more money toÂ not only plug the holesÂ in the infield, but in the bullpen.
Here’s what all of this might come down to: signing John LackeyÂ (and no one else) doesn’t makeÂ the Nats at .500 ballclub, but signing Garland (or Piniero, or Marquis) with DeRosa behind themÂ and Mike Gonzalez in the bullpen does.