With the trading deadline four days away, the Nationals’ front office executives will be asking numerous questions of themselves and their roster. One of the biggest: Should the Nationals acquire a top starting pitcher to replace Stephen Strasburg in September?
The answer: no. It represents too insignificant of an upgrade at too high of a cost. The Nationals would be giving up at least two elite prospects — the cost of doing business for a starter like Zack Greinke or Matt Garza — in order to upgrade for only a handful starts.
First of all, acquiring another top starter would throw current fifth starter Ross Detwiler’s role into question for August. Detwiler has punched up a 3.26 ERA over his last 24 starts, a pretty hefty sample of strong performances. What do you do, you stick him back in the bullpen for six weeks? The Nationals are rolling right now, and there is danger in upsetting that balance.
If the Nationals traded for a starter, they would be doing so only with the idea of replacing Strasburg in mind. They have not determined the precise number of innings Strasburg will be limited to, so any estimate of precisely when he’ll be shut down would be inexact.
For these purposes, suppose Strasburg pitches 170 innings this year. He has thrown 117 1/3 innings so far, leaving him 52 2/3 more. If he averages six innings per start and stays on an every-fifth-game schedule, as is planned, he would make his final start Sept. 8.
Again, it’s a fool’s errand to try to project the exact date Strasburg’s season will end. But this provides a rough idea. The Nationals have 23 games in the final three-plus weeks of September, spliced with two off days. If Strasburg’s replacement pitched every fifth game, he’d make four starts.
But the Nationals would have an option to limit the September starts of their fifth starter. Because of the off days, the Nationals could keep their top four starters on an every-fifth-day schedule and require a fifth starter only three times. Manager Davey Johnson’s protective handling of the rotation’s workload wouldn’t hurt if the Nationals went that route and leaned on Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Detwiler.
Anyway, all of that is a long-winded way of saying that any starter the Nationals acquired would be moving a deserving starter out of the rotation for six weeks and then replacing Strasburg for only a handful of starts.
And that starter would not be taking the place of some replacement-level pitcher. Lannan posted a 3.70 ERA in 184 2/3 innings last season. He’s consistent and reliable. You certainly survive a playoff race with him making three or four starts in a month. In those three or four starts, how much of a difference would a Garza or Greinke make compared to Lannan? Decimal points of a win. Certainly not enough to make it worth sacrificing a couple top prospects.
Once in the playoffs, a playoff rotation of Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Detwiler and Jackson would still give the Nationals a foursome that compares favorably to any in the National League.
The goal of any baseball season should be simply making the postseason, because anything after that is largely up to chance. The playoffs are a royal crapshoot. Only twice over the past 12 years has the team with the best record in the majors won the World Series. When it comes down to one game or one series, the variant nature of baseball trumps pure talent.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to field the best team possible. But having the best team guarantees nothing in October. Nothing is a lock in late July, but the Nationals have bet-the-ranch odds of making the playoffs. They lead the division by five games, and their offense — which leads the majors in runs in July — is performing at its highest level of the season.
There is one sound argument for adding a starter. The Nationals have been exceedingly fortunate with their starters’ health, but there is no assurance they will remain so. A starting staff is more than just five pitchers. It’s also depth. The Nationals are lucky their’s hasn’t been tested, but if they are, the insurance of a top starter, and not just a fill-in, would be huge.
In the final analysis, insurance is no reason to raid your farm system. The Nationals are at their best with Strasburg, but they are good enough to win without him or a replacement from the outside in September.
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 17, Rochester 9: Eury Perez went 4 for 6 with two doubles. Carlos Rivero went 4 for 6 with a home run. Jesus Valdez went 4 for 6 with a home run.
Harrisburg was suspended.
Potomac 3, Lynchburg 1: Nathan Karns allowed one run in six innings on five hits and a walk, striking out seven. He lowed his ERA with Potomac to 1.84. Adrian Sanchez went 1 for 3 with a double. Kevin Keyes went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk.
Hagerstown 8, Lakewood 6: Caleb Ramsey went 2 for 4 with a home run. Bryce Ortega went 2 for 4 with a walk. Taylor Jordan allowed two run in four innings on seven hits and two walks, striking out five.
Auburn 6, Vermont 5: Tony Renda went 3 for 5 with a double. Estarlin Martinez went 2 for 3 with a walk.