Jordan Zimmermann leaving the Nationals as a free agent was essentially a foregone conclusion, so much so that the team has probably been making long-term plans without him in mind for months. And now that it's official, the question becomes what is next for their pitching staff. Who will step in to fill Zimmermann's place in the rotation, and is that player already within the organization?
As of this morning, the Nationals' 2016 rotation projects like this:
RHP Max Scherzer (14-12, 2.49)
RHP Stephen Strasburg (11-7, 3.46)
LHP Gio Gonzalez (11-8, 3.79)
RHP Joe Ross (5-5, 3.64)
RHP Tanner Roark (4-7, 4.38)
**stats are from 2015 season**
That's still a pretty good group. It is probably good enough to get the Nationals back to the playoffs as is, barring injuries or something unforeseen.
But 'good enough' has not stopped the Nationals in recent years from upgrading their starting staff and doing something unexpected along the way. Remember, the Nationals had the best rotation ERA in 2014 before they forked over $210 million to sign Scherzer, the biggest free agent on the market last winter.
The Nats certainly have that option this year, if they want to dip back into free agency. This year's class is loaded with David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, John Lackey, Yovani Gallardo and Jeff Samardzija headlining a group that is rare in its depth of star power. That route, however, costs lots of money. Just because Zimmermann signed for five years and $110 million, doesn't mean others would. Cueto, for instance, is aiming for over $140 million.
If they choose to make a change, they could also try to trade for a starter, as they did for Doug Fister before the 2014 season and Gio before 2012. Both of those trades involved giving up multiple prospects for a proven veteran player under team control beyond one season.
Guys of Fister and Gio's ilk are not easy to find, but San Diego's Tyson Ross (Joe's brother) and Tampa Bay's Alex Cobb are two examples of excellent starting pitchers who do not hit free agency until after the 2017 season. The 2016 class of starting pitching free agents is not a good one, but the group set for the following year is decent.
There is also the option of promoting from within. Ross and Roark fit that mold and both are capable starters. Ross, in particular, has a very good chance of being in the Nats' 2016 rotation after taking Fister's place in 2015.
Roark, though, has no guarantees. If the Nats weren't convinced in him as a starter after he held a 2.85 ERA in 31 starts in 2014, will they change their tune after he posted a 4.82 ERA in 12 starts in 2015?
Beyond Ross, the Nationals also have super prospect Lucas Giolito waiting in the wings. He could conceivably win a rotation spot out of spring training, or take one midseason after starting in the minors. But he's only 21 years old and is still building his way back from Tommy John surgery. Last season he threw a career-high of 117 innings.
The Nationals have a fine rotation as it currently stands, but we have also said that before at this time of the year. Will they do something unexpected?