The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals need rotation help. They’ll see what the market offers up.

Dave Martinez's Nationals had the worst rotation ERA in the major leagues in 2022. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

SAN DIEGO — The previous time Major League Baseball held winter meetings in person, back in 2019, the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff was the least of their worries. Fresh off their first championship, the Nationals still made a splash that December by bringing back World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg on a seven-year, $245 million contract. Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin were in the fold, too. Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth were expected to contribute in the future. Aníbal Sánchez was a safety net if needed.

Three years later, the Nationals are looking to add veteran arms on a much smaller scale. Strasburg has pitched just 31⅓ innings since landing his deal, and his future is anything but certain. Scherzer was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers and now pitches for the National League East rival New York Mets. Ross had Tommy John surgery for a second time. Voth was designated for assignment last season and landed with the Baltimore Orioles. Fedde was non-tendered last month. Until Strasburg can get things figured out, only a vastly struggling Corbin remains for a rebuilding team that shuffled through 15 starters in 2022.

So with the winter meetings underway, Washington will do what it can to upgrade its rotation.

“We’ve got some starters already in our rotation, but we don’t feel like we have enough,” Manager Dave Martinez said Monday. “As the season goes along, things happen. We do need [more starters]. Especially if we can get another veteran starter, it will be great — one or two.”

On paper, the rotation is nearly complete. Cade Cavalli, Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore are young centerpieces; although Cavalli and Gore were injured at the end of last season, Martinez said both are on track for spring training. Corbin will be in the mix despite his massive struggles since starring in the World Series, leaving one spot the Nationals could fill internally.

They will search the free agent market but are supremely unlikely to make a move as big as ones made by their division rivals Monday. Former Nationals shortstop Trea Turner agreed to an 11-year, $300 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, reuniting him with Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber. A few hours earlier, the New York Mets had landed American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander on a two-year deal worth $86 million. All the while, the Nationals were quiet.

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Heading into the offseason, General Manger Mike Rizzo pointed to needs at the corner infield positions and in the outfield. They signed Jeimer Candelario to a one-year deal last week; Martinez and Rizzo said he will compete for the third base job with Carter Kieboom. The Nationals also signed Stone Garrett for outfield depth.

But reinforcements are needed for a rotation that finished last in the majors in ERA (5.97) and struggled to eat innings.

“We need guys to go a little deeper in games,” Martinez said. “Our bullpen, I think, was a big strength of ours last year, but I can’t do that to them this year where they cover so many innings.”

Rizzo said durability will be a major consideration but noted his team is looking for the pitcher who can make the most impact. That said, the market price for impact pitching, even on a one-year deal, is steep.

Mike Clevinger, who had a 4.33 ERA in 23 games (22 starts) last year, signed a one-year deal worth at least $12 million with the Chicago White Sox late last month. Matthew Boyd, who finished last season as a reliever with the Seattle Mariners, returned to the Detroit Tigers for $10 million.

If the Nationals want to improve their rotation in a significant way, they probably have to make an investment.

“Few seasons you go through with five starting pitchers,” Rizzo said. “You never have enough depth. … We’re always looking to upgrade. We’re not going to add something that’s not an improvement. But we are looking to upgrade the starting pitching, most prominently.”

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At the general managers meetings last month, Rizzo said he believes his philosophy on pitching remains true: Develop your own pitchers, then sign a few from the outside to build a strong rotation. The Nationals can watch Cavalli, Gray and Gore for another season before they determine when to get aggressive in free agency.

Of course, the Nationals had hoped their rotation would be anchored by Strasburg, but his health remains an unanswerable question. He had surgery for carpal tunnel neuritis in 2020, then for thoracic outlet syndrome in 2021. This past season, he made just one start before landing on the injured list again.

Martinez and Rizzo reiterated Monday that they won’t set a timetable on Strasburg’s return. In the meantime, they’ll consider free agency to fill the gap.