The Washington Nationals landed the consensus prize of the starting pitching market Tuesday when they agreed to terms on a six-year deal with left-hander Patrick Corbin, according to a person familiar with the situation. The terms of the deal are not yet known, though Yahoo and others have reported it is worth $140 million and does include that ever-present Nationals' specialty — deferred money.
The deal fills Washington’s most glaring hole, providing a proven arm behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Corbin, an all-star in 2013 and 2018, will be 29 to start the 2019 season. He pitched to a 3.15 ERA and an 11-7 record with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season, one of his best in the big leagues. Since he debuted with the Diamondbacks in 2012, Corbin has a 3.91 ERA and struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings.
The lefty relies on a fastball that sits in the low-90s and a whiff-inducing slider, and actually held right-handed hitters to a lower batting average against (.213) than lefties (.239). He is not a proven ace in the way Scherzer was when the Nationals signed him to his seven-year megadeal, or even in the way Strasburg was when they extended him for $175 million. But with a reported average annual value of $23 million, Washington is not paying Corbin Scherzer or Strasburg money.
The Nationals hosted Corbin for a visit last week, one that included dinner with General Manager Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Mark Lerner, who made their case. Corbin grew up in Upstate New York as a devout New York Yankees fan, so many in the industry speculated the Yankees — who also hosted him — had an inside track to sign him. According to reports, they were unwilling to give Corbin a sixth year on a deal, which led many to believe the free-spending Philadelphia Phillies would sign him. Ultimately, the Nationals seized him, and in so doing checked off another box on their offseason checklist.
Since the end of the regular season, the Nationals have traded for reliever Kyle Barraclough, signed reliever Trevor Rosenthal, signed catcher Kurt Suzuki, traded for catcher Yan Gomes, and now signed starter Corbin. Their biggest needs entering this offseason were starting pitching, catching and bullpen depth. They have addressed all of them a week before the winter meetings begin — and long before Bryce Harper’s contract situation seems likely to reach its resolution.
The Corbin signing is somewhat out of character for the Nationals, who have signed only two players after those players received qualifying offers — Scherzer and Daniel Murphy. Because the Diamondbacks made Corbin the qualifying offer and he turned it down, the Nationals will forfeit their second- and fifth-round draft picks as well as $1 million in international bonus money, in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement.
The move pushes Washington’s salary commitments to somewhere around $190 million, assuming reports about the terms of Corbin’s deal are correct. The Nationals have insisted that they want to remain under the collective bargaining tax threshold after exceeding it for two straight seasons, which means they need to remain under $206 million in the sum of their average annual value and various other expenses that filter into that conversation. Aiding their cause, however, is that Strasburg and Scherzer are both owed more than the average annual value of their deals this season, which means they count for less against the payroll as it is calculated for competitive balance tax purposes than they do in true salary.
Now that they have Corbin, the remainder of the Nationals' plans remain unclear. Their rotation consists of Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Tanner Roark and likely Joe Ross, with Erick Fedde waiting in the wings. They will likely need to bolster their depth at the back of the rotation to account for injuries, though they are undoubtedly better off now than they were before the Corbin deal — or even when they began the 2018 season.
Washington could also use a left-handed hitting first baseman and a left-handed specialist in its bullpen, both of which will cost money, but nothing back-breaking. The biggest potential signing remains Harper, who rejected a 10-year deal worth $300 million in September. Harper’s future was always going to come down to Harper and ownership — and likely be independent of other roster machinations, such as signing Corbin. If Harper decides he wants to return, the Lerner family will have to decide whether they are willing to stretch the payroll to bring him back. If he doesn’t, the Nationals are well on their way to moving on without him.