I have put together a few arguments, which I’ll call solid since I wrote them, as to why the Nationals should pursue Cliff Lee. They aren’t hard to make, he’s great, the Nats aren’t, and who wouldn’t want a guy like him? Whether there are arguments for Lee to want to play for the Nationals (other than money) is something I won’t delve into. The options other than Lee aren’t great, so with only him out there, maybe the Nats should wait a year to pursue a big time ace.

The premise would be that right now, the Nats are far from good, and far from contending. Rather than trying to sign a big time guy now, wait til everyone matures a bit, wait til their current ace comes off of a year of DL time, THEN go after a big time guy.  It’s not a bad idea, but if that’s their plan, they have to strongly consider doing it now, a year early, and the reason is simple. The list of 2012 pitching free agents. Here is the list of starters (pulled directly from Cot’s):

* – player whose current contract includes 2012 option

Mark Buehrle (2271 1/3 IP, 1287 K, 519 BB, 3.85 ERA) Buerhle has had a great career, and I think his lack of Ks contribute to him being relatively underrated. He’s not a true shut down ace, but he’s a great pitcher, and has started 30+ games in all of his last 10 seasons. The problem with the 31 year old is that he has said he is considering retiring after his contract’s up, although there’s speculation he wants to play for his home town Cardinals. If he’s available and willing, he’s definitely worth a look.

Chris Carpenter * (1965 IP, 1494 K, 569 BB, 3.80 ERA) Well what the heck, there’s your ace right there, right? Not really. The Cards can keep him for $15 million in 2012, and why wouldn’t they? Those numbers aren’t even reflective of his last 7 seasons, 5 of which he was healthy, where his numbers were 1094 1/3 IP, 882 K, 238 BB, 2.98 ERA. Not to mention a Cy Young and at least two other top 3 finishes for the award. I don’t think anyone can count on the 35 year old to be available in 2012. And, oh yeah, he’ll be 37 that year.

Aaron Cook * (1215 1/3 IP, 510 K, 371 BB, 4.41 ERA) He’s has some moderately good seasons in Colorado. Nothing special, not horrible.

Kyle Davies (706 2/3 IP, 495 K, 341 BB, 5.49 ERA) He’s got decent stuff but no control or consistency.

Zach Duke (964 1/3 IP,  505 K, 263 BB, 4.54 ERA) He did have that great rookie debut, but hasn’t been very good since.

Edwin Jackson (879 1/3 IP, 653 K, 377 BB, 4.62 ERA) Jackson was coveted by the Nats this season via trade, but it was never worked out. He has strikeout capabilities, but the 26 year old is still very inconsistent. 2011 will determine whether he becomes a top free agent signing or continues to be a “potential” guy.

Scott Kazmir * (1020 1/3 IP, 993 K, 471 BB, 4.14 ERA) There was a time (like 2008) when the thought of an impending Kazmir free agency would be very exciting. But he’s lost all effectiveness, and there is little reason to believe that a) the Angels will exercise their $13.5M option on him in 2012, and b) he’ll be worth pursuing.

Brandon McCarthy (372 2/3 IP, 251 K, 142 BB, 4.56 ERA) Not a bad pitcher, and probably belongs at the back end of somebody’s rotation, but nobody’s mistaking him for an ace.

John Maine (585 2/3 IP, 492 K, 265 BB, 4.35 ERA) Alot of his reputation rides on a good 2007, but he hasn’t been good since then. He can strike some guys out, so there may be something appealing there, but he’s not that good at the moment, and his shoulder problems leave the question of when he’ll even pitch next.

Paul Maholm (981 1/3 IP, 608 K, 332 BB, 4.48 ERA) Being the best pitcher on the Pirates doesn’t make you a good pitcher.

Jason Marquis (1543 2/3 IP, 898 K, 602 BB, 4.56 ERA) Grrrrrrrrrrrrr

Gil Meche (1432 1/3 IP, 1050 K, 594 BB, 4.49 ERA) For the first two years of his surprising 5-year/$55M contract the Royals offered him, he looked well worth the money. Since then he has had the great combination of being hurt often and stinking when he’s healthy. His shoulder problems over the last two years will probably scare most people away, unless he turns in a stellar 2011, which seems unlikely.

Scott Olsen (723 IP, 528 K, 291 BB, 4.85 ERA) He’s under contract until 2012, but he’s been so bad, and so has his shoulder, that he’ll probably be available this offseason. The Nats aint going back here, not if I have anything to do with it. Oh, I don’t? Well, I still don’t see it happening.

Roy Oswalt * (2015 IP, 1666 K, 467 BB, 3.18 ERA) Hmm, let’s see. Nope, I can’t come up with a realistic scenario in which the Phillies wouldn’t pick up his option, barring his right arm detaching and going flying into the stands a la Anton Lubchenko. Of course, Oswalt could opt out himself and test the market, if he wants to get there a year early.

Oliver Perez (1111 2/3 IP, 1126 K, 628 BB, 4.63 ERA) It’s amazing that Perez is only 28 right now. Especially when you consider how many losses he has. ZING! Those K numbers are gonna entice somebody, but that 1.79 K/BB ratio should scare most away, especially considering it’s even worse over the last few seasons (in 2010 it was a putrid 0.88). The Mets took a project and completely flubbed it. He may work out some day, some where, but he won’t get a huge contract and is a long way from being effective.

Joel Pineiro (1608 2/3 IP, 996 K, 449 BB, 4.34 ERA) He figured something out the last two years, where he’s racked up a 3.64 ERA. He may end up being a decently hot commodity in a thin market, if he can pitch a third solid year in a row.

Wandy Rodriguez (985 IP, 838 K, 458 BB, 4.18 ERA) Back in 2005, when the Astros were rolling out Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt, Wandy was their 4th pitcher by the end of the year. He wasn’t impressive, but his stuff was, and he’s all growed up now. He can be inconsistent game-to-game, but in his last three years his numbers are great: 538 IP, 502 K, 175 BB, 3.36 ERA. He’s probably at the top of the list of guys available.

Brian Tallet (446 2/3 IP, 327 K, 206 BB, 4.65 ERA) Let’s just say… he’s not that… Tallet-ed? Aaaaaah, time to move on.

Tim Wakefield (3071 2/3 IP, 2063 K, 1158 BB, 4.38 ERA) I used to say that Wakefield was one of those guys you didn’t really want to face, but didn’t really want on your team, due to the unpredictability.

Chien-Ming Wang (670 2/3 IP, 310 K, 197 BB, 4.16 ERA) Maybe he’ll pitch this season, maybe for the Nats, and maybe he’ll be as good as he was from 2005-2008. Maybe. But you certainly can’t count on anything from him right now.

C.J. Wilson (484 2/3 IP, 431 K, 221 BB, 3.90 ERA) He has set himself up nicely for a big contract, after his 4 pitch capabilities convinced the Rangers to move him from closer to starter. The 29 year had a 3.35 ERA starting 33 games included 3 CG starts. But he also led the league in BBs, and his K/BB ratio was a 1.83, which isn’t horrible but it doesn’t say “top of the rotation”. He’ll get some money, and he may be the one of the best available, but he isn’t a sure thing.

Hmm, that’s a pretty weak list. Carpenter won’t hit the market, and Oswalt probably won’t (although he’s more likely since he has the opportunity to decided that on his own).  Buerhle is still considering retiring, but I have a feeling he’ll work his way on to the Cardinals if he can. He appears to be one of those guys that wants to play in a couple of places or not pitch. There is an outside chance he’s going to be a regular old free agent, but if I was a betting man, I’d say all three of those pitchers are off the list for the Nats.

So that leaves… Wandy Rodriguez as the best guy on this list? Followed maybe by Jackson, CJ or Pineiro? I actually think Wandy is a very good and currently underrated pitcher, and could be a great pickup for someone. And I’m quite happy to have him locked up for 2 more years on my fantasy team. After that though, it goes downhill fast (the free agent starting pitcher market, not my fantasy team). I don’t think there is an opportunity to “just wait and see” with the pitching staff. 2012 looks to be similar to 2011, one guy at the top who isn’t dominant like Lee, and a few projects you may want to undertake.

This isn’t to say they should abandon all hope of finding someone great in 2012. In fact, if Oswalt is available, while the usual suspects are pursuing him, the Nats could go hard after Wandy. It just suggests to me that they shouldn’t look at 2011 and decide to wait a year because they don’t like what they see now. They may not like what they see in 2012 either.

By Charlie