Last season, even without Stephen Strasburg for a large portion of the season, Nationals starters compiled a 3.61 FIP, and only Mets starters were better. All five members of that rotation return this year. The Nationals, who have no obvious closer and could use some more power, can at least feel good about their rotation, right?
Maybe. Relative to their usual pantry full of starters, the Nationals lack depth. As evidenced by their signing of Max Scherzer before the 2015 season and their unfruitful pursuit of Chris Sale this winter, starting pitching is one aspect of their roster with which the Nationals never get complacent. Their general manager, Mike Rizzo, traded away two of their top young arms in exchange for Adam Eaton, but generally stockpiles them.
Scherzer withdrew from the World Baseball Classic with a stress fracture in his right ring finger, though expects to be ready for spring training, and displayed no obvious signs of trouble as he accepted his Cy Young Award on Saturday night. Strasburg missed the end of last season with a torn pronator tendon in his throwing arm, but he, his agent and Rizzo all agree he is working through a normal offseason and expects to be ready for spring training. Joe Ross missed most of the second half with shoulder inflammation, but returned to pitch in the playoffs, and expects to be fully ready for spring training. After throwing more innings last season than ever before, Tanner Roark agreed to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic before this season. Gio Gonzalez has had no injury trouble to speak of, but is the least consistent of the bunch. If everyone stays healthy, the Nationals are once again stacked with starters. If not, A.J. Cole might be the next man up. Despite his late-season surge, the Nationals would probably prefer a more-proven option.
So could they pursue another veteran starter before spring training? Reports linked them to Ross’s older brother, Tyson, before the right-hander signed with the Texas Rangers, and Joe admitted recruiting a bit on his own. But Ross signed elsewhere and in so doing took one of the more-established starting options off the market. Who else is left?
Jason Hammel, who made a name for himself with the Cubs last year, is still a free agent. Left-hander Brett Anderson, formerly of the Dodgers, is also still available. Rizzo, who has shown a tendency to reacquire players he drafted, was the Diamondbacks’ scouting director when Arizona drafted Anderson in the second round of the 2006 draft — 44 picks after it drafted Scherzer. Former National Doug Fister is also a free agent, but like Hammel and Anderson, seems unlikely to sign somewhere with no obvious rotation spot.
What makes more sense for the Nationals, then, is a player who can pitch out of the bullpen, but provide starts if necessary — the role Yusmeiro Petit was intended to fill at times last season. Left-hander Travis Wood, for example, could be a fit. Wood was a part of the Cubs rotation from 2012 to 2014, but pitched to a 2.95 ERA in 77 appearances out of the bullpen in 2016.
Those pitchers, and others like them, are probably not cost-prohibitive, even though the Nationals have been noticeably conservative on the market this offseason. In keeping with their low-spending offseason, the Nationals could decide to spend only on their most pressing needs — the back end of the bullpen — and not allocate resources to an area of strength. But that strength is far from a certainty as the Nationals enter this season, as questions about health and consistency hover around their starting rotation.