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Destination 2012: Nationals Get Gorzelanny

Yesterday, the Cubs traded superfluous lefty starter Tom Gorzelanny to the Nationals for two fringe prospects. Though the Nationals don’t look like a competitor in a tough National League East in the upcoming season, the move, coupled with other moves by the team, does seem to suggest that there’s a near-term destination in mind for the team in our nation’s capital.

The most recent pre-trade CAIRO projections have the Nationals winning only 72 games this season – improving by three wins from last year – but still not leaving the cellar. Seen in this light, it seems folly to trade prospects of any kind for a pitcher that has mostly produced confusion in his first five hundred innings as Dave Cameron so eloquently put it yesterday.

The world won’t come to an end for the Nationals system without A.J. Morris and Michael Burgess, on the other hand. Morris spent two inconspicuous years in college, striking out about five per nine at Kansas State to little fanfare. In his final year, he started 16 games, pitched 116 innings, and struck out 100 batters against 30 walks. That was enough for the Nationals, who took him in the fourth round, but 128 2/3 innings into his minor league career, he’s striking out batters at just about the same ratio (7.8 career MiLB K/9) and he doesn’t seem to own much upside. Sure, he can coax grounders, but he lacks a third pitch and, as a 23-year-old in High-A, is a little old to get excited about, especially now after a year spent relieving about half of the time. Burgess is a stocky (listed at 5’11”) 21-year-old power hitter that just reached Double-A for the first time and owns a .257/.349/.464 career minor league line built on lots of whiffs (29.4% career). He probably won’t succeed without reducing the strikeouts.

In any case, neither of these prospects is likely to be ready this season or next, and so it speaks to some sense of urgency on the Nationals. Their CAIRO projections for the season see the 2011 pitching staff, obviously affected by the loss of Stephen Strasburg, and have them giving up the most runs in the division and the third-most in the National League. The addition of Gorzelanny could be an effort to mitigate that number. Certainly Gorzelanny (3.92 2010 FIP, 4.54 career FIP) should be an upgrade over the worst of John Lannan (4.47 2010 FIP, 4.71 career FIP) or Ross Detwiler (5.64 2010 FIP, 4.33 career FIP).

But, really, how much will that win or two be worth to a team that may be the worst of a strong division? The answer – not much – may be irrelevant if the focus is 2012 and not this season. Next year, the team gets back its ace to join a more seasoned and healthy Jordan Zimmermann at the front of the rotation. They’ll also have a year’s worth of data on their uber-prospect Bryce Harper that year, and even the possibility of a late-season boost from the slugger. And, last but not least, the team will have one last year of a cheap Gorzelanny in the middle of their rotation, gobbling up innings.

Hey, if it’s not a vision that speaks to you, you are not alone. But the Nationals have seen how difficult it can be to lure top free agents to their city and their team, and this vision may just make the team a little more attractive in coming off-seasons. Just imagine it on the front of a glossy binder and part of a presentation about the future of the Nationals. Destination: 2012.