The Nationals plan a major push for free-agent right-hander Roy Oswalt, viewing him as the perfect veteran complement to Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang, major-league sources said.
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The Rangers also could emerge as a serious player for Oswalt if they lose free-agent lefty C.J. Wilson — and frankly might prefer a right-hander, considering that their rotation already includes two lefties, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.
And those are just two suitors.
Oswalt, 34, isn’t the pitcher he once was, and he was out from June 24 to Aug. 7 with lower back inflammation. Still, he produced a 3.59 ERA in his final 10 regular-season starts for the Phillies before losing Game 4 of the division series to the Cardinals. In a thin market for starting pitching, Oswalt (9-10, 3.69) is one of the most attractive right-handers available.
Oswalt, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda — it’s not a terribly sexy list. And Oswalt plans to be choosy, according to his agent, Bob Garber. He isn’t necessarily looking for a team close to his home in Weir, Miss. He just wants to win a World Series.
The Nationals might not be as close to winning the Series as some other clubs that might pursue Oswalt, but club officials are trying to build a team that will contend next season.
“With Roy, home and family are very important to him,” Garber told FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi. “It would be a bonus to be close to home, but nothing is off limits, in terms of either coast or the Midwest.
“Ideally, yes, it would be great to be close to home, but it’s not going to stop us, if it’s the right situation. His goal is to get the ring. He doesn’t have any jewelry right now. He’s made a lot of money. At this point, it’s about the ring. That’s what he wants to take with him.”
As for Oswalt’s back, Garber said that the pitcher’s trying 2011 season was a learning experience that should help him in the future.
“The nagging back injuries kind of put a damper on this year, but he’s kind of figured out with a couple of doctors how to manage the back pain,” Garber said.
PAPELBON VS. RIVERA
No one would suggest that Jonathan Papelbon is as good as Mariano Rivera. But a comparison of their first six full seasons as relievers — 2006 to ’11 for Papelbon, ’96 to ’01 for Rivera — reveals that they are closer than you might think.
Rivera had the lower ERA (2.16 to 2.30) in a similar number of games, but Papelbon had more strikeouts per nine innings (10.81 to 8.25), fewer walks (2.23 to 2.43) and a lower opponents’ on-base percentage (.199 to .205).
A side-by-side comparison of the two over the past six seasons tilts slightly more in Rivera’s favor — his ERA edge is better, his walk rate much lower. But even then, Papelbon rates the edge in strikeouts per nine and opponents’ OBP.
Will Papelbon match or exceed Rivera’s $15 million average salary in free agency? Probably not — Rivera plays for the Yankees, the team with the game’s highest payroll, and many clubs do not value closers as highly as they once did.
Still, Papelbon’s performance clearly is at an elite level, and if anything he might be back on the upswing. He turns 31 on Nov. 23 and rebounded from a sub-par 2010 to produce the highest swing-and-miss rate of his career. His swing-and-miss rate, in fact, has increased in each of the past three seasons.
SAN FRAN’S PAYROLL SQUEEZE
The Giants’ trade for outfielder Melky Cabrera on Monday leaves them — for now — with a projected outfield of Cabrera in center, Aubrey Huff or Brandon Belt in left and Nate Schierholtz in right.
The team still could add to that mix, but free agent Carlos Beltran no longer looks like a fit and the Giants probably won’t be a serious bidder for free-agent shortstop Jose Reyes, either.
Their money is in pitching.
The Giants’ payroll, which increased from $98.6 million in 2010 to $118.1 million in ’11, could rise again in ’12. The team already has committed $81.7 million and must sort through 11 potential arbitration cases, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Not all of those players will be offered contracts — outfielder Andres Torres, for example, is a non-tender candidate now that the Giants have added Cabrera. But right-hander Tim Lincecum is likely to command at least $18 million in arbitration, and the Giants’ first-time-eligible players include third baseman Pablo Sandoval and reliever Sergio Romo.
Several pitchers under contract also will receive major raises. Righty Matt Cain’s salary will jump from $7 million to $15 million, closer Brian Wilson’s from $6.5 million to $8.5 million, lefty reliever Javier Lopez’s from $2.375 million to $4.25 million.
The Giants could trade Lincecum, as my colleague Jon Paul Morosi suggested in a recent column. But now that Sanchez is gone, that would leave their rotation perilously thin, compromising their greatest strength.
MOVING WRIGHT WRONG MOVE — FOR NOW
It would be just like the Mets to trade third baseman David Wright after announcing that they plan to reduce the field dimensions and lower the fences at Citi Field — moves that could help Wright improve his power numbers.
Yet Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote on Sunday, “Word continues to circulate in baseball circles that the Mets will be willing to discuss David Wright in trades this offseason as part of a complete facelift/rebuild away from Wright and Jose Reyes.”
Discussing is OK; the Mets should be gauging the value on all of their players. But it’s difficult to imagine the team getting sufficient value for Wright considering that A) he is coming off a career-low .771 OPS and B) he missed more than two months with a stress fracture in his lower back.
The more logical play might be to open the season with Wright, gambling that he will return to form. The Mets then could trade him in June or July, presumably for a greater return than they would get this winter.
Of course, there would be downside to that strategy as well.
The number of teams interested in Wright now probably is greater than it would be during the season, when fewer clubs would have openings at third base. What’s more, Wright can void his 2013 club option if traded, so he would amount to a two-month rental.
If the Mets need to trade Wright for financial reasons, so be it. If they get a good return for him, more power to them. Otherwise, there is little reason for them to jump into a deal.
WHAT ABOUT KURODA?
Little is known about the intentions of free-agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, who could return to Japan next season, re-sign with the Dodgers or join another major-league team.
Kuroda, who turns 37 on Feb. 10, is coming off perhaps his finest season in the majors: He went 13-16, but his 3.07 ERA was the best of his four-year major-league career.
Is it possible he could pitch for a North American team besides the Dodgers? Well, Kuroda, after much deliberation, rejected a trade to the Red Sox last July. But the circumstances are different now.
For one thing, Kuroda might be more open to playing elsewhere, having gone through the experience of considering another team. For another, the Dodgers’ immediate future is uncertain with the team in the process of being sold.
If the Dodgers lose Kuroda, their rotation would consist of lefty Clayton Kershaw, righty Chad Billingsley, lefty Ted Lilly and possibly righty Nate Eovaldi and lefty Dana Eveland. Re-signing Kuroda would enable the team to at least consider trade Billingsley for offensive help.
IT’S NOT JUST YU
While right-hander Yu Darvish will be the top Japanese pitcher available if he is posted by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, two left-handed starters who are likely free agents already are drawing significant interest, according to their agent, Alan Nero.
The first, Tsuyoshi Wada, was 16-5 with a 1.51 ERA for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the regular season this year (Darvish, by contrast, was 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA). Wada, who will pitch next season at 31, is a crafty veteran, described by Nero as “Jamie Moyer-plus-plus.”
The second lefty, Wei-Ying Chen of the Chunichi Dragons, is a harder thrower who is only 26 and 36-30 in his career with a 2.59 ERA. Like Wada, Chen currently is pitching in the Japanese playoffs.