WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Mike Rizzo has the Washington Nationals’ blueprint broken into one-year, three-year and five-year plans, all laid out in his office at the team’s ballpark by the Navy Yard waterfront. It is how the general manager looks at both the present and the future, what the franchise has and what it doesn’t, how needs could change based on future markets, the status of ongoing negotiations and who’s coming through the minor league system. It’s the basis for everything he does.
Those plans are never public. It would be against Rizzo’s way — or the nature of any executive — to telegraph intent. But they crystallize at the beginning of each season, right before our eyes, and Rizzo can’t hide the Nationals’ preferred identity. It is tethered to starting pitching, for the past seven years and the coming one, which is why Rizzo built around Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg this winter. He signed Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million deal in December. He signed two veterans, Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson, to round out the staff and added two veteran catchers to strengthen the group.
Washington will spend around $96 million on those five arms this season — more than five teams may pay their entire rosters — and that investment carries an expectation for success, for the Nationals again to compete for a pennant and for a World Series run to, just maybe, begin right there on the mound.
“The expectations are huge for this staff,” Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. “Any team needs their starting horses to be horses, and we are really going to need that.”
‘Like getting a PhD in pitching’
Wil Crowe showed up for his first major league camp looking to learn as much as he could. Crowe, a 24-year-old starter and one of the Nationals’ top pitching prospects, has spent most of his career hearing about spin. The spin rate of his breaking pitches. The spin rate of his fastball. It was “spin, spin, spin” — as he repeated at his locker in early March — from his college days at South Carolina, to his ascent through the minor leagues, to the articles Crowe reads about baseball and new-age analytics.
That’s why he was surprised at his first pitching meeting this spring and not just because he was mixed in with Scherzer and Strasburg and Corbin and so on. They were all talking about their fastball command. Crowe got a peek at where everything starts.
“It was all about the fastball, when to use it, how to use it, how to spot it, how to command it better and build off it,” said Crowe, wide-eyed as he recalled the conversations. “I mean, being around those guys is like getting a PhD in pitching.”
Their fastballs function in different ways, naturally, but play a prominent role in each arsenal. Scherzer, who turns 35 in July, still throws in the mid-90s and pairs a cutter with his four-seam fastball. Strasburg’s velocity has dipped in recent years, from the high 90s to between 91 and 94 mph last summer and this spring, and he uses a four-seam fastball and a sinker to pound the bottom of the zone. Corbin doesn’t have overpowering heat but uses two fastballs to set up a dominant slider and slow-looping curve. One of them cuts a bit. The other sinks. Everything moves.
Sanchez turned 35 in February and is a softer-throwing veteran. He once threw harder, like most pitchers can say, but now uses three fastballs (a four-seam, sinker and cutter) to set up four other options: a curveball, a slider and two different change-ups. Hellickson’s fastball hovers in the high 80s, and when he is going well it induces soft contact and sets up his plus change-up. It’s a lot for opponents to chew on as they prepare to face two, three or four of these pitchers, depending on the series. It’s also a lot for the team’s two new catchers to keep straight; the five starters can throw about 28 different pitches.
“This is an established group, so it’s not like I’m going to come in here and teach them all new pitches,” said veteran catcher Yan Gomes, who joined the team with Kurt Suzuki this offseason. “It’s such a great staff that you just want to fit in in a way that works best for them.”
‘We know how good they can be’
Gomes, an all-star with the Cleveland Indians last year, joked that he doesn’t want to mess anything up. Suzuki, 35 and in his second stint with Washington, indicated the same with a big smile. They were being self-deprecating, sure, but there is some truth to this: Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Sanchez and Hellickson are all established pitchers who know what works for them and what doesn’t. Any tinkering is minute.
Lilliquist estimated that a starter is comfortable with mechanics for six of every 10 starts. For the other four, give or take, he offers suggestions based on video and his view from the dugout. The experience of each starter challenges Lilliquist to find small tweaks for improvement, such as Scherzer’s approach late in counts or Strasburg’s foot position at the end of his delivery or Corbin’s balance of sliders and curves or Sanchez’s diverse sequences or Hellickson’s use of the “quick pitch” he has worked on this spring. That’s how the rotation will challenge Gomes and Suzuki, too, with small nuances that have set them apart or kept them afloat. And those will challenge hitters. And, maybe, they will challenge one another as the season begins.
“I think it’s more so that I enjoy watching their bullpens and the stuff they do in between the games,” Strasburg said this month. "Those are the things you don’t really get to see when you are on the other team.”
Throughout the spring, Strasburg has paid close attention to how Corbin and Sanchez pitch and prepare for each start. He likes each pitcher’s tempo, how they control the glove side of their body through their windups and how softly their front foot lands after releasing the ball. Strasburg is working on all of that to sync his mechanics, put less effort into each pitch and, more than anything, stay durable this season and going forward.
Health will be the biggest factor for this staff, and health is why building around starters is always a risk. The Nationals missed Strasburg for much of last summer because of shoulder soreness and a nerve impingement in his neck. He finished with 22 starts. Hellickson was limited to 19 appearances because of two injuries — a hamstring strain and a sprained wrist — and that, coupled with the time Strasburg missed, led nine pitchers to make three or more starts in 2018. Sanchez has not made more than 26 starts since 2013, and the Nationals essentially swapped him for Tanner Roark, who has averaged 31 across the last three years. Scherzer, on the other hand, has been a portrait of durability throughout his career. Corbin, to his credit, threw 200 innings last season and has been sturdy since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2013.
Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, Jefry Rodriguez, Tommy Milone, Kyle McGowin, Austin Voth and A.J. Cole combined to make 31 replacement starts last year. They had a collective 6.07 ERA and the Nationals went 12-19 in those games, contributing to an 82-80 record that kept them well outside the playoff picture. There’s a chance that Ross and Fedde could team with Voth, McGowin, Henderson Alvarez and maybe Crowe to provide better depth this season. But Washington doesn’t want to have to find out.
“We need 200 innings out of a few of our starters,” said Lilliquist, though he didn’t specify which ones. “The bottom line is, bell-to-bell, we have to make every start. That’s what it comes down to with this group because we know how good they can be."
And how good is that?
On paper, before any games have been played, it is one of baseball’s deepest rotations, a group the Nationals can lean on, the foundation of a rebound year and maybe more. But nothing was ever won in December or February or March. Money spent doesn’t seamlessly add up to wins. Rizzo knows that. So do Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Sanchez and Hellickson, who are now tasked with making a major investment look worth it. That begins Thursday, inside Nationals Park at 1:05 p.m., and won’t stop until all the results are in.