Mike Rizzo hasn’t done this introductory news conference thing too often, at least not for players. He did it when the Washington Nationals signed Max Scherzer in January 2015, then again when they signed Daniel Murphy around Christmas of that year. Subsequent acquisitions have failed to rise to such a level that required the awkward public dressing of a grown man in his new baseball jersey. But Patrick Corbin, to whom the Nationals committed $140 million over six seasons this week, is a big deal.
In the months since one of the more disappointing seasons in Nationals history, Rizzo, buoyed by ownership’s seemingly vigorous support, has addressed most of his team’s needs already. He acquired two catchers. He acquired two relievers. Those moves signaled commitment to resurgence. But this one, outbidding the Phillies and the Yankees for the most coveted starter on the free agent market – paying more and committing to more years than some thought Corbin could get – signaled World Series aspirations.
Rizzo said he and his staff perused the trade market for front-line starting pitching options. But as he put it Friday, “Free agents only cost you money. Trade candidates cost you prospects and money.” Pivoting to free agents, then, Rizzo set his sights on Corbin.
“[He’s] 29, needle moving north, athlete,” Rizzo said. “Checks off a lot of boxes we’ve been looking for in this free agent class.”
When Corbin made the D.C. stop on his East Coast tour, Rizzo and Mark Lerner took him; his agent John Courtright; and his wife, Jen; out to dinner. They were wanded by security at the doors of Fiola Mare. Vice President Mike Pence was eating there, too. But amid the glitz, both sides found something genuine.
“We learned a lot about what their interests are, Jen and Patrick, and how we interact with people,” Rizzo said. “I think bringing this type of personality, this type of attitude, is going to be important. Not just between the lines, but in the clubhouse, in the community and that type of thing.”
Corbin, who beamed at his wife from behind the microphone as he thanked her for all her help in getting him here, mentioned her when asked what stood out about Washington.
“I just feel like this is the best fit for myself and Jen and my family,” Corbin said, “to be able to come in here and compete for a championship and be a part of something special.”
For years, the Lerners took knocks as the Nationals finished second for big-name free agents such as Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. In Corbin, Rizzo and the Lerners outbid the free-spending Phillies and Yankees, leaving nothing to chance as they once again ensured their payroll will be among the league’s highest – regardless of whether Bryce Harper returns.
“I don’t look at it as we’re bidding against anybody,” Rizzo said. “… We aggressively went after Patrick Corbin. We paid the going rate for an elite starting pitcher. We feel good that he’s going to be pitching for us.”
For Rizzo, starting pitchers will always be king. And in committing more to Corbin than any other team was willing to commit, he and the Nationals took one of their greater pitching risks yet. Corbin, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, relies heavily on his slider, the kind of pitch that some believe breaks down an elbow more quickly than any other. And yet, the Nationals went all in – no opt-outs, no safety net – on the lefty.
“I scouted him at Chipola Junior College, and he had great stuff back then,” Rizzo said. “… An important part of this process is he’s such a great athlete. … Pitchers who are athletic, I think, have a better chance of staying healthy.”
In Friday’s audience sat Scherzer, the 34-year-old Cy Young winner who signed a seven-year deal worth $210 million four years ago. A few seats down sat Stephen Strasburg, who signed a seven-year extension worth $175 million two summers back. Ryan Zimmerman and newly acquired catcher Yan Gomes were also on hand to welcome Corbin.
Corbin, clean-cut with a boyish look about him, will now be the third starter in a rotation that appears loaded when healthy. Friday, the Nationals announced the arrival of the next generation of rotation anchors. He is a younger, less-proven ace who could sputter or soar and who almost certainly will take the Nationals with him either way.
Corbin “was one of the top pitchers in the National League in 2018,” Rizzo said, reading the last bullet point on the cheat sheet Rizzo brought to the podium with him. “We hope the best is yet to come."