The Washington Times - December 3, 2012, 07:47PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There are certain facts that are inescapable as the Winter Meetings begin Monday morning in earnest at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. That the Washington Nationals are in search of a starting pitcher, they have possible chips to trade for him, and the Tampa Bay Rays seem to have a surplus of very good ones who are starting to price themselves out of Tampa’s comfort zone, is certainly one of them.

So as the rumor mill begins to churn, it’s worth noting that the Nationals have, at least internally, discussed the idea of a trade with the Rays. Their most likely target could be James Shields, a 30-year-old right-hander who has averaged over 200 innings over his seven-year career with a 3.89 career ERA.


Shields would be a terrific fit for the Nationals as a veteran hand to help guide the Nationals’ young but talented staff. And his contract, which pays him $9 million in 2013 and has a team option for $12 million in 2014, is certainly not prohibitive. 

But don’t rule out the team aiming higher.

The Nationals built their 98-win season on the back of starting pitching. They know they have four top pitchers already in their rotation in Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. If they could add, say, a Cy Young winning left-hander like David Price to that group? It’d become an embarrassment of riches they’d be only too happy to possess.

The Nationals have inquired on Price, as no doubt all 29 teams have, and they know the cost to acquire him would be exceedingly steep.

The question becomes what would the Nationals have to give up to get either guy, or perhaps even another of the Rays young stable. That’s where the names like Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa come in and neither would be given away lightly — particularly Espinosa.

Where the Nationals could have a coveted trade chip in Morse should they re-sign first baseman Adam LaRoche, and one they’d move in the right deal because of both the value he’d return and the fact that he’ll be a free agent after the 2013 season, they would be far more reluctant to move Espinosa.

There are factions within the Nationals’ organization who feel that the team would be better off with Steve Lombardozzi as their everyday second baseman. The high strikeout totals for Espinosa turn them off where they see a contact hitter in Lombardozzi who, though not as powerful and inferior to Espinosa defensively, could give them more consistency.

So as Espinosa’s name gets bandied about remember one thing: there are also big Espinosa supporters in the organization and that faction includes general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson, who believe he will be a top-tier player on offense as well as defense when all is said and done.

Now, back to a possible trade.

For someone like Shields, perhaps Morse and Espinosa would be enough. The Rays have needs in the outfield, middle-infield and at catcher.

But the Nationals, in that case, would be giving up five years of control — and two quality players — in exchange for two. They’d have to balance that with what they feel Shields could do for their rotation and the situation they’re in as an elite contender right now. It might not be enough. For Price, a 27-year-old Cy Young winner with three years of control remaining on his contract? Morse and Espinosa alone likely wouldn’t get it done. 

For now there’s not much traction in any possible deal between the two teams, but as the meetings heat up, it bears some watching. And it’s important to remember the role LaRoche could play in it as the Nationals would likely be more reluctant to move Morse without LaRoche in the fold.