We can equivocate all we want about the Washington Nationals’ lineup and whether the additions of Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber — both hoping for rebound years — are enough to protect Trea Turner and Juan Soto. But here’s the thing: The Nationals under the construction of Mike Rizzo are and always will be built on starting pitching. So the addition of Jon Lester says more about the philosophy of the club than any offensive addition can or will.
The addition of Lester isn’t, say, signing reigning Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, the marquee free agent available. But he also isn’t the equivalent to the free agent signing of Aníbal Sánchez before the 2019 season — a transaction that helped the Nationals win the World Series but a bargain-basement deal for a role player with high upside.
No, this is Jon Lester, writ large, a cancer survivor as a rookie in Boston, a World Series hero a year later and then again in 2013, a siren when he came to Chicago to say the Cubs were ready to win, then a champion again. Lester doesn’t wander unnoticed into a clubhouse. He might be, relatively, a bit player on the team he is joining. He has been a leading man wherever he has been before. A wallflower, he is not.
So sort out the Nats’ alpha males now. Max Scherzer, in the final year of what might be the greatest free agent contract in the sport’s history; he’s now 36. Stephen Strasburg, the World Series MVP from 2019 who threw all of five innings in the abbreviated 2020 season, is expected to be an anchor for six more years. Patrick Corbin, the lefty who still has four years and more than $107 million due to him — not with the presence and stature of Scherzer or Strasburg but still an organizational investment and a postseason hero all his own.
And now, Lester, at 37, hardly a shrinking violet.
To be clear: I love this move. Not because I think Lester is going to throw 200 innings at a 3.00 ERA this season. He hasn’t done that since 2016, when the Cubs won the World Series and he fronted a rotation that also included Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. But that’s not his job here. At 37, don’t ask him to re-create his 32-year-old self. It’s not likely.
Rather, this move is good because it further entrenches the Nats as to who they are. I’m worried about their defense. I’m not certain about their production from third base. I like the bullpen depth if they can find another lefty and somebody to close. But, man, they have some horses to start the game.
That’s an interesting line to draw in the sand, too, in 2021. The lasting image from the 2020 season is that of Tampa Bay Rays starter Blake Snell with a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning of a game his team needed to win to extend the World Series — getting yanked. He had struck out nine Los Angeles Dodgers. He had allowed all of two singles. He hadn’t walked a batter. Yet performance paled to probability. Snell was sent to the showers. The Rays lost.
That’s not likely to be the Nationals’ strategy under Manager Dave Martinez, who was the Cubs’ bench coach when Lester signed with Chicago. The Nats will have those conferences on the mound, but more often than not, the manager will walk back to the dugout and the starter will keep the ball — whether that’s wise or not.
Since 2012, when the Nationals made the first of their five postseason appearances, no team has milked more innings from its starting pitchers, and only the Dodgers’ rotation has a better ERA than the Nats’ 3.63. That’s an organizational identity built over the course of a decade. The idea of an opener? Put that question to Scherzer, Strasburg or Lester, and wait for the sneer in response.
To be sure, there’s some reason to be concerned that Lester can’t capture what he once was. I’m not one to assign much meaning to the disjointed, coronavirus-shortened 2020 season, when Lester made 12 starts and had a career-worst 5.16 ERA. The three previous years, he combined for 95 starts in which he averaged almost 5⅔ innings at a 4.03 ERA. Would the Nats take that? They would, indeed, particularly if they’re getting what they expect out of their top three starters.
Yes, Lester’s fastball velocity was at a career-low 89.8 mph in 2020, according to FanGraphs. But here’s where he might fit in with the Nats as rebound candidates — individually and as a whole. Scherzer’s fastball velocity remained at an all-time high in 2020 even as his other numbers sagged following a year in which he made six postseason appearances, a clear strain. Strasburg essentially had a year off after throwing a career-high 245⅓ innings in 2019, between the regular season and the playoffs, so perhaps he is refreshed. Corbin’s velocity on his fastball and make-or-break slider dipped in 2020, too, but he is only 31 and there is no reason to believe he can’t physically respond.
The idea: All are pros, all had diminished workloads in 2020, and all could rebound in 2021. Throw in Lester, and those four starters have 17 all-star appearances among them. That’s a lot of guile, a lot of know-how — and a lot of star power.
Could so much ego in one room cause a problem? Scherzer has been a part of rotations like this before — and not just with the Nats in 2015, when he arrived and found Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez already entrenched. Rather, the Detroit Tigers of 2014 had not just Scherzer but Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello and then traded for David Price. Those four pitchers have combined for seven Cy Young awards. It’s heady stuff.
The thought here is that all these current Nats are champions, and that’s all that matters to any of them going forward: winning one more World Series.
The Nats, as constructed going into 2021, are not a perfect team. But as the rest of baseball feels out the market and wonders what might lie ahead, at least they know who they are. They will be carried or failed by their starting rotation, which now features Max Scherzer at the front and Jon Lester at the back with Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in the middle. That’s a rather interesting place from which to start.