The Washington Times - November 7, 2012, 09:08PM

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Last Friday, the Washington Nationals declined to extend a $13.3 million qualifying offer to right-hander Edwin Jackson, effectively cutting ties with the right-hander who started 32 games for them in 2012 and had a 4.03 ERA.

Why?

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“We felt with the depth we had at the major league level and the depth of free agents that we had out there, we had as good or better options,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday. 

The second part of that statement — the depth of the free agents out there — is one to keep in mind as the Nationals cast a wide net in their search for a starting pitcher to replace Jackson and add to their already solid staff of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. 

The Nationals are looking for a pitcher to give them five starters. That doesn’t mean they’re looking for a No. 5 starter and it doesn’t mean they’re looking for an ace. It means they’re looking at everything, and it could get interesting. 

“We want to get as qualified and impactful a starting pitcher as we can,” Rizzo said. 

“We’re not in the market for a quote-unquote ‘fifth starter.’ We want to get as good of a starting pitcher as we possibly can. He may pitch fifth in our rotation but we don’t necessarily want a No. 5-quality starter.”

This is a bit of a departure for the Nationals in that they have few specific guidelines to follow in their search. Last offseason, Rizzo was clear about what he was looking to add to the rotation and that was a top-end left-hander, preferably one with significant experience and possibly a veteran leader. They went after Mark Buehrle and then ultimately traded for Gio Gonzalez. Both fit the majority of that description.

“I’m much more open-minded with it this year,” Rizzo said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a veteran, it doesn’t have to necessarily need to be a fifth-starter type of guy.”

The Nationals are still planning to convert Christian Garcia into a starter this spring, and they’ve been pleased with the progress Ryan Perry has made in a similar transition. Both could be in the mix for the No. 5 starter competition, as could John Lannan if he’s tendered a contract, though that seems somewhat unlikely. Jackson has also said he’s open to returning to the Nationals.

But if the Nationals are going to dive into the starting pitching free agent market, then they’ll likely start at the top and see how quickly they’re priced out. If you’ll allow some pure speculation with names … that means taking a look at Zack Greinke. It means exploring Kyle Lohse. It means considering Anibal Sanchez. It means evaluating the best talents available and seeing if there is common ground.

The length of a deal would likely not be prohibitive for the right player, despite the pipeline the Nationals have with some of their top pitching prospects a year or two away from being major league ready, such as right-hander Alex Meyer, because those situations are always fluid. Rizzo declined to address the team’s payroll flexibility directly but did note the Lerner family’s commitment to the team and added “if it makes sense to us in dollars we go for it, and if it doesn’t make sense, then we won’t.”

For Nationals fans who watched an already-formidable rotation this past season, and know Strasburg will be without limitation this season, the idea of adding one of those pitchers is enticing. Then there’s the fact that the Nationals already tried to acquire Greinke once and, in an interview with the Washington Post in the spring of 2011, he sounded more than open to the idea of possibly joining them in the future.

“It wouldn’t have gotten as far as it did [with the Nationals] if it wasn’t appealing,” Greinke told the Post in March of 2011 of a trade that would’ve likely come with a contract extension and reportedly could’ve cost the Nationals Zimmermann, Drew Storen and Danny Espinosa. 

“Maybe it works out better that the deal didn’t go through,” Greinke said. “In two years [2012 offseason] I might be a free agent, and then they get to keep the players [who would have been] in the trade. And some of those guys could end up being key players for them.”

The Brewers reportedly offered Greinke a contract extension this summer worth more than $100 million over five years and it’s been reported this fall that the right-hander, who was traded to the Angels before the trade deadline in July, could be seeking a deal in the six-year, $150-million range. The market for his services also figures to be extremely competitive. So, like I said, the Nationals may start at the top and see what works.

“It would depend on the price, of course” Rizzo said when asked about going after an elite pitcher, though not specifically Greinke. 

For now, the Nationals are still evaluating the market and plotting their potential moves. Rizzo said they’re not “down the road on anything” after Day One of the GM meetings, and they’ve got time to figure things out. They’re looking for a starting pitcher. It’ll be interesting to see how their search winds up.

“We’re always striving to get better and we’re always looking to positively impact the club,” Rizzo said. “You never really let up. You’re always trying to get better.”