The desired approach hasn’t changed. At least not yet. Maybe some of the faces do, and the stakes, but the Washington Nationals keep building around the pitcher’s mound because they believe it’s a tested way to win.
So, without further ado, welcome to 2019.
“Starting pitching is the driver to me,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said in November, as if to forecast how he would spend his offseason. “We’ve built our clubs based on having a guy in the middle of the diamond who gives us a chance to win every day.”
That was before the Nationals had the busiest offseason in baseball, back when their starting pitching cupboard was bare beyond Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark and a handful of unproven players. That was always going to change. Rizzo acknowledged as much at November’s general managers meetings, noting the Nationals’ interest in the market’s best pitchers and stressing his oft-stated theory that an organization can never have enough arms.
Now, as Rizzo all but promised, the Nationals head to spring training (pitchers and catchers report Wednesday) with a rotation of Scherzer, Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, with three others vying to round it out. They signed Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract in December. They landed Sanchez for two years and $19 million later that month. And they brought back Jeremy Hellickson on a one-year, $1.3 million deal last week, expecting the veteran to compete with Joe Ross and Erick Fedde for the fifth starter spot.
If Hellickson prevails, Washington will spend roughly $95.9 million on its Opening Day rotation, according to figures from Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That is more than Cot’s predicts the Oakland Athletics, Baltimore Orioles, San Diego Padres, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays to spend on their entire teams. The roughly $88.6 million committed to Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin for 2019 is about 45 percent of the Nationals’ expected payroll, and such an investment only increases expectations.
But there is risk because even great pitching can succumb to injury, age or variables that aren’t accounted for until they have to be. These Nationals, who hope to compete for the National League East title and more, need a new-look bullpen to complement all that has been poured into the starting staff. They’ll probably need depth from pitchers marked by recent injuries or inexperience. They need, maybe more than anything, the sort of rotation durability they did not get last season. Their chance at having success, and rebounding from an 82-80 season, could hinge on it.
“We’ve allocated a lot of resources to our front of the rotation,” Rizzo said in December when the Nationals introduced Corbin. “Elite starters, middle-lineup bats and back-end relievers is where I think you spend your money, and you try to get values along the periphery of your roster.”
Unless the Nationals re-sign star outfielder Bryce Harper — which, at this point, would take ownership’s willingness to go well beyond the Competitive Balance Tax threshold — Rizzo will spend heavily on those elite starters, and not so much on middle-lineup bats and back-end relievers. Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin are three of the five Nationals who will make more than $10 million in 2019; the others are third baseman Anthony Rendon ($18.8 million in his last year of arbitration) and 34-year-old first baseman Ryan Zimmerman ($18 million). The rest of the roster is filled with well-priced veterans or players still under team control, which will only work if the starting pitching does.
The Nationals’ best month of 2018 was May: They went 20-7 and got solid pitching throughout. Strasburg was healthy and pitched deep into games. Gio Gonzalez’s season ERA dipped to 2.10, and his record improved to 6-2 after five strong outings. Scherzer was Scherzer, posting four wins in the month on his way to finishing second in Cy Young voting. Yet, aside from Scherzer’s dominance, it was all fleeting.
By season’s end, Washington had 12 pitchers make a start. Nine of them, including Jefry Rodriguez and Tommy Milone, made three or more. Strasburg missed most of the summer with injuries and saw his fastball velocity hover in the low-90s when he returned. Gonzalez and Roark struggled as the Nationals slipped in the standings. The Nationals’ preferred starting rotation in 2018, with Hellickson in the fifth spot after he supplanted A.J. Cole in mid-April, made 131 starts. That’s an average of 26 per pitcher. Gonzalez made 27 before he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in late August. Roark, whom the Nationals traded to the Cincinnati Reds in December, made 30. Their performance wasn’t reliable by any stretch, but they reliably took the mound every fifth day and didn’t force the Nationals to reach even deeper into the organization for answers.
Last season only underlined that it takes more than five dependable arms to get through a 162-game schedule, and the need for increased durability from Strasburg, Sanchez and Hellickson moving forward. Sanchez, 34, threw 136 2/3 innings last season for Atlanta but hasn’t made 30 starts since 2012. Hellickson had just 19 starts in 2018 and only twice finished the sixth inning. While this has not been a problem for Corbin or Scherzer, and even with Scherzer turning 35 this season, there is reason to question just how many innings this staff can account for. And should Hellickson become the fifth starter, the depth options include Ross, Fedde and then a considerable drop-off to Austin Voth, Kyle McGowin and possibly Henderson Alvarez, who has a spring training invitation but hasn’t pitched a full major league season since 2014.
None of this is to discredit the pitching staff, to denigrate an offense built to compensate for Harper’s absence or to paint last season as some kind of cautionary tale. But the Nationals’ approach and identity again are tethered to their rotation, and that can be a fragile formula. We’ll soon see whether the team they’ve built can make it work.