Stephen Strasburg is on the injured list. Before posting six scoreless innings against St. Louis on Tuesday night, Patrick Corbin was a mess. Joe Ross was solid until the Cardinals rocked him for 10 runs Monday. Jon Lester has yet to pitch because of MLB’s coronavirus protocols. Erick Fedde is a fill-in who is pitching like a fill-in.
Juan Soto’s trip to the injured list is distressing. But given the state of the rotation, an organization’s foundation — so solid for a decade — suddenly has fissures. That’s scary for this season, the last of Scherzer’s epic contract. But it’s potentially debilitating going forward. Strasburg has five more years at $35 million annually. Corbin has three more at $23.3 million per. Who are they? The returns are incomplete. The possibilities make you shudder.
The Nationals say they are a team with championship aspirations. They entered Tuesday last in the National League East, with the second-worst record in the NL. It’s April, and nothing has been determined other than this: Unless the starting pitching improves, there not only won’t be a sixth playoff appearance in the past 10 seasons, but the last-place finish in the shortened 2020 season will feel less like a free pass and more like a trend.
This is not panicking. This is assessing the situation for what it is. Mike Rizzo’s reliable, oft-repeated axiom is this: “With starting pitching, anything is possible. Without it, nothing is possible.” It’s how he has built this team not just this season but over his 13 years as the general manager. It’s how the Nats won that first division title back in 2012. It’s how they won the World Series in 2019 — with Strasburg, Scherzer, Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez combining to cover 112⅓ of the 139 October innings.
And it’s not just those guys. Rizzo drafted and developed Jordan Zimmermann, once a workhorse. He traded for Gio González, Doug Fister, Tanner Roark and Ross, key pieces in division title runs. He spent wisely on Sánchez as a free agent for 2019 — success he hoped to replicate this season with Lester’s one-year, $5 million deal.
Since 2012, no team has taken the whip to its starting pitchers more frequently — Washington’s starters have racked up more than 8,040 innings, most in the majors. In an era in which the most important stat on a given day can be pitch count, an era when the use of “openers” has become more commonplace, the Nats have averaged between 5⅔ and six innings per game from their starters. That’s not just having Scherzer and Strasburg and the best years of Zimmermann and González. That’s an organizational philosophy.
This year? Yes, it’s early. Very early. But headed into Corbin’s outing Tuesday, Washington’s rotation was averaging just more than 4⅔ innings per game.
And if the organization’s backbone currently consists of decaying vertebrae, there’s a trickle-down — even in April. A bullpen that’s asked to get 11 outs per night — the Nats’ average through Monday — isn’t sustainable.
“They’re pitching way, way too much,” Manager Dave Martinez said after Ross’s 4⅓-inning outing Monday. “We definitely got to keep an eye on these guys or we won’t have a bullpen.”
Which, in turn, puts more burden on Scherzer. Here’s the good news: Three months shy of his 37th birthday, he still seems built to endure it.
What Scherzer has done over the course of his seven-year, $210 million contract — essentially, be the best pitcher in baseball — skews how we view what starting pitchers typically accomplish after signing such deals. Scherzer’s ranks among starters since 2015, his first year with the Nats: first in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs; fourth in ERA; second in walks and hits per inning pitched; first in innings pitched; first in batting average against.
In those six-plus seasons, Scherzer has 1,487 strikeouts. The next-closest pitcher is Chris Sale — with 217 fewer. It’s how $30 million per year looks like a bargain.
But as Scherzer finishes his then-record-setting contract in Washington, he has set unrealistic expectations for what the Nats can get out of their other nine-figure pitchers, Strasburg and Corbin.
Baseball history is littered with far more $100 million flops than successes. For every Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw, there’s a Barry Zito and a Homer Bailey, a Mike Hampton and a Johan Santana. David Price (seven years, $217 million) won a World Series in Boston but was never truly embraced before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Justin Verlander signed a seven-year, $180 million deal with Detroit — which dealt him midstream to Houston, where he won a World Series, signed an extension and then blew out his arm.
Nine-figure deals for pitchers were fraught when Kevin Brown signed the first one way back in 1999, and they remain fraught now. Performance risk is one thing. Injury risk is just as great.
That’s what haunts Strasburg, now and forever. For all his talent and drive and commitment, the one commodity he can’t consistently deliver is availability. The list of pitchers who have thrown more innings than Strasburg since 2012 includes the names you would expect — Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Verlander, Kershaw and Lester rank one through five. But it also includes Lance Lynn, González, Wade Miley and Julio Teheran — none of them stars, all of them able to perform every fifth day.
When Strasburg pitches, he absolutely performs. His injuries are real, and they frustrate him to no end. But to be worth $35 million per year, the first step is taking the ball. Maybe Strasburg will do that by the end of the month and all will be well. But given that this is just the second year of his seven-year, $245 million deal, and he has pitched all of 15 innings under it, it doesn’t feel great to be perpetually crossing your fingers that his latest ailment (shoulder inflammation) will be mild.
So these are the questions that define the Nats for now: Where will Corbin, in the third year of his six-year, $140 million contract with Washington, fit on the spectrum of bargain to disaster? Tuesday’s outing was encouraging and needed, but what does it mean going forward? More than that, what will become of Strasburg — a World Series MVP, a hero forever — this year and beyond, let alone at the end of a deal that expires when he is 38?
We don’t yet know, of course. What we do know: The Nats are built on starting pitching. If it doesn’t deliver, then not only does an individual season crumble, but the future looks murkier than it has in a decade.
Enjoy Scherzer’s start Wednesday. They won’t last forever.