The Washington Nationals need to improve in a lot of places, but none so much as starting pitching. They do, however, have one valuable commodity in Adam Dunn—a premier slugger with one year left on a reasonable contract. He is prime trade bait.
The Rays are a very good team caught in the toughest division in the league. They went looking for a middle of the order slugger last off-season, but Pat Burrell has been a bust. A year later, they still need to fix the problem.
The Rays have a bounty of young number No. 2 and 3 starting pitchers, with quality minor leaguers still waiting in the wings. Matt Garza and James Shields are untouchable co-aces, but one of their talented rookies or minor leaguers might be available for the right price.
The Rays’ pitching endowment includes Rookie of the Year candidate Jeff Niemann, 2008 postseason hero David Price, and promoted minor league star Wade Davis. Jeremy Hellickson, a prize prospect ranked 8th in their system by Baseball America, just finished blazing through the minor league playoffs, striking out 18 in 12 1/3 innnings.
All of these pitchers have bright futures. Some people believe Price will be the kind of ace that stacks up well against CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett. Niemann has 12 wins and a 3.80 ERA on the season.
On the other hand, both Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson were ranked higher on prospect lists than Niemann coming into the season, and both have strong minor league track records.
The Nationals have had one consistent starter this year—John Lannan—and a revolving door of the mediocre and unseasoned. Pitching prodigy Stephen Strasburg may help stabilize the rotation, but he’s still a year away. They need a solid, durable starter who can give innings and keep them in games.
One team is still a few years away from contention, looking for young starting pitching to build around. The other is on the verge of contention, looking for a big bat that could put them over the top. Each has what the other needs.
Could there be a trade?
The American League is better than the National League; it’s a fact repeated to the point of cliché. But it bears attention in trading players from one league to the other.
Players going from the NL East to the AL East will take a hit in their numbers. Adam Dunn, who has hit 40 homers like clockwork for five seasons in a row, might become a 35 home run man—still good, just not as.
Conversely, a starter going from the Rays to the Nationals could expect to improve, especially the first time through the league. Javier Vazquez this year, Kyle Lohse in 2008, Ted Lilly in 2007, and Bronson Arroyo in 2006—all these players have gotten a bump in their numbers coming from the AL to the NL.
Jeff Niemann might go from having a 3.80 to 3.50 ERA with the Nationals—making him a legitimate ace. Wade Davis, at a 3.82 FIP in AAA this season, might put up a 4.00 ERA in the NL. And Jeremy Hellickson, who’s put up a 3.03 FIP between AA and AAA this season, could do the same.
So, what are some fair offers? Adam Dunn is a big time slugger, so a trade for him might need to include some smaller parts.
Possible parts include:
Andy Sonnanstine, who won 13 games last season but was demoted to the bullpen due to a poor 2009. He may have faltered in the AL East, but, if given the opportunity to pitch out of his funk, he might be a solid No. 4 or 5 starter for the Nats.
Dan Wheeler, a solid reliever who will be in the last year of a $10 million contract next season. The money is not as big an issue for the Nats as the Rays; DC just needs solid relievers to stabilize the bullpen.
The number of years left on a contract are, perhaps, the most important piece of the puzzle in a trade. Adam Dunn has one year left on his contract. Rookie pitchers, on the other hand, are under club control for 3 years, and are then eligible for 3 years of salary arbitration, before becoming free agents.
So any trade needs to take into account that the Rays would get one year of Dunn, while the Nationals would get 5 to 6 years from a young pitcher.
Given the pieces discussed, and the comparative longevity of contracts, here are three potential deals:
Adam Dunn for Jeff Niemann
Adam Dunn for Wade Davis and Dan Wheeler
Adam Dunn for Jeremy Hellickson and Andy Sonnanstine
These are ordered according to the better starting pitcher being given up. Each would help both teams.
Mike Rizzo and Andrew Friedman, let’s make a deal.