Last week, before the Nationals signed former Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer, ESPN’s Buster Olney declared Washington’s starting rotation of Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark the best in baseball. An ESPN Insider subscription is required to read the entire thing, but here’s an excerpt:
Some evaluators believe the Dodgers should be No. 1, given the presence of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at the front of the rotation and some interesting investments at the back.
But the Nationals’ depth is staggering. Four of the top 16 qualified NL pitchers in terms of ERA in 2014 were in the Washington rotation, and the one Nats guy not in that 16, Gio Gonzalez, had a respectable 3.57 ERA. Washington’s rotation ERA of 3.04 was the best in the majors last year, and the group held opposing hitters to a .657 OPS, also the best mark in the bigs.
With the addition of Scherzer, who posted a 3.15 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in the American League last season, the question is no longer whether the Nationals have the best rotation baseball, but whether they might have one of the best rotations in baseball history.
The last time a team’s pitching staff drew comparisons to the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Braves rotations of the ’90s was in December 2010, when Philadelphia signed Cliff Lee to a $120 million contract. Lee, who helped the Phillies win the 2009 World Series, returned to Philadelphia after a season in Seattle and Texas, joining a staff that already featured Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
“I think it can be as good as anybody’s rotation in the history of the game,” longtime Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone told ESPN’s Jayson Stark after the signing.
The World Series or bust talk followed.
“I think that’s the only acceptable outcome this year — to win the whole thing,” closer Brad Lidge told USA TODAY in February. “We’ve got a chance to be a special club,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.
“We’ve got a guy sitting there (Halladay) that threw two no-hitters (last year) and a Cy Young winner (Lee) and three other (top) starting pitchers. We’re going to have a No. 1 starter going every day. … Every guy we send out there is capable of being great.”
The Phillies went 102-60, won the NL East by 13 games and led the league in attendance. Philadelphia’s starters posted a 2.86 ERA, with Halladay and Lee finishing first and fifth, respectively, in WAR among pitchers. Rookie Vance Worley replaced an injured Joe Blanton as the Phillies’ fifth starter and won 11 games.
None of that mattered in the postseason, when the Phillies were eliminated by the Cardinals in the National League Division Series. (Philadelphia’s Big Four entered the series with a combined 20-8 record and 3.08 ERA in the postseason.)
But Scherzer, who anchored a staff that was considered the best in the American League entering last season, knows as well as anyone that a great rotation guarantees nothing. The Tigers, who barely held off Kansas City to win the division, acquired David Price at the trade deadline, giving them the previous three AL Cy Young award winners for an expected postseason run. Baltimore swept Detroit and its formidable staff in the ALDS, in large part due to the Tigers’ atrocious bullpen.
The Nationals have their own bullpen issues to address with the departures of Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano, though some might argue that losing Soriano is addition by subtraction. Roark’s move to the bullpen will help, and Mike Rizzo could be eying other relievers in free agency. (Or maybe he’ll find a way to sign James Shields and roll with a six-man rotation!)
With Zimmermann and Fister set to become free agents after the 2015 season and Strasburg the following year, Scherzer gives the Nationals an ace for years to come. In the short term, winning 100-plus games and running away with the NL East title in 2015 is a reasonable goal.
Let’s hope they fare better in the postseason than the 2011 Phillies.
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