Max Scherzer

What Nationals aces Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have to say about Lucas Giolito's turnaround

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USA TODAY

What Nationals aces Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have to say about Lucas Giolito's turnaround

The meteoric rise of Lucas Giolito this season has been straight out of NASA, a rocket boost for a pitcher whose once bright career almost became permanently grounded following his disastrous 2018 season.

The most earned runs in baseball. The second most walks. Giolito could have been forever scarred. But instead, the former “top pitching prospect in baseball” — who went home to Southern California saying, “I don’t want to be a loser anymore” — is now tied for the most wins in baseball.

How Giolito got to this point didn’t just start in the offseason when he shortened his delivery and rewired his overthinking pitching brain.

To fully grasp how far he’s come, you have to trace it back to his days with the Washington Nationals and the two pitchers who took him under their wings: Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

“It’s been fun to watch. He’s come a long way,” Strasburg said about Giolito in an interview on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “He’s obviously made a big step and a big adjustment. I think that for anybody, there’s going to be times in the future where you’re going to have to do it again, but I think he’s also proven to himself that he can do that when it’s necessary, so I don’t see any reason why he can’t dominate for the next 10 to 15 years.”

I think White Sox fans will take that.

The 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick who had the "phenom" label placed on him just like Giolito, Strasburg could relate to the attention and heat that Giolito was feeling all around him.

“You’ve got to flush out all the noise. After being around for a while, you start to realize how the game is. It’s always going to be that way. There’s always going to be a new guy coming up that they’re going to say is going to win Cy Young after Cy Young. Some guys pan out, some guys don’t,” Strasburg explained.

When Dusty Baker was the Nationals' manager in 2016, he told the young Giolito to learn as much as he could from Scherzer, a Cy Young Award winner known for his tireless work ethic. One day before a game, Scherzer asked Giolito if he wanted to go for a run outside the stadium. Giolito wasn’t much of a runner, but this was Max Scherzer. How could he say no? It might have been better if he did. Scherzer had to keep slowing down along the way because Giolito couldn’t keep up with him.

The run proved to be symbolic for the young Nationals pitcher who dreamed of having a career like Scherzer's, but at that moment, he had a long way to go, not just on the pitcher’s mound, but in the strength and stamina department.

“He was a young kid who was 21 years old in the major leagues. That’s a daunting time, knowing where I was at as a baseball player when I was 21 years old,”  Scherzer said about Giolito.

The lesson Scherzer taught Giolito that day is what he continues to preach to young pitchers today.

“You have to get better. A lot of times we’ve been told how great we are. No one really comes up to you and tells you you have to get better. For me, I know that helped me when I was a younger player. I realized that I had to get better. That’s one of the things I always try to articulate to the next guys coming through, realizing how hard this league is, how hard it is to stay here and how much better you have to be,” Scherzer said.

This might be hard to believe for a pitcher who has now won three Cy Young Awards, but back in 2011, Scherzer believes he was where Giolito was last season.

“2011 was the worst year of my career. You have two bad years in this league and you’re gone. So for me, I had to get better. I had no choice,” said Scherzer, who had a career-high 4.43 ERA but still went 15-9 with the Detroit Tigers in 2011. “I just put my head down and just did everything I could to just go out there and make everything as consistent as possible.”

These were basically Giolito’s blueprints for renovating his career.

Playing in the National League, Scherzer has only seen highlights of Giolito here and there this season, but he immediately recognized the biggest change in the White Sox pitcher’s delivery and he’s a fan of it.

“I’ve just noticed that he’s shortened up his arm action. He’s got a much different arm path than when he was here with the Nationals. Typically, I’m a huge fan of guys who shorten up and have short arm actions. To me, that’s not surprising why he’s having success,” Scherzer said.

After winning American League Pitcher of the Month honors in May, Giolito has continued to dominate in June, throwing 15 scoreless innings against the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals. In his last seven starts, he’s 7-0 with a miniscule 0.88 ERA. What a turnaround for a pitcher who once was lost, but now has been found.

“Everybody needs a wake up call.  You can always push yourself more, you can always do more,” Scherzer said. “You can always train harder and find ways to train smarter and better. It never ends and that’s the best part, that it never ends.”

And the White Sox are hoping that this is only the beginning for Giolito.

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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

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AP

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Washington Nationals

2018 record: 82-80, 2nd in NL East

Offseason additions: Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Adams, Anibal Sanchez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Tony Sipp

Offseason departures: Bryce Harper, Tanner Roark, Matt Wieters, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Mark Reynolds, Joaquin Benoit, Tim Collins, Trevor Gott

X-factor: Victor Robles

The 21-year-old outfielder is a big part of the reason why the Nationals don't feel like the sky is falling without Harper. Robles enters 2019 as the No. 4 prospect in baseball by MLB.com and has been a consensus Top 10 prospect the last few winters.

He dealt with an elbow injury last year that limited him to just 73 games between the minors and majors, but he hit .288 with an .874 OPS in 66 plate appearances with Washington. He is a career .300 hitter in the minors and has an enticing blend of speed and contact and has shown flashes that he may add power as he grows and gets stronger.

If Robles becomes the player everybody thinks he can be, it will make the Nationals and their fans forget about Harper every now and then. He may never be as good as Harper (and certainly not this season), but Robles at least should make the Washington defense better with his excellent range in center.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - RF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Anthony Rendon - 3B
4. Juan Soto - LF
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Brian Dozier - 2B
7. Yan Gomes - C
8. Victor Robles - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Patrick Corbin
4. Anibal Sanchez
5. Jeremy Hellickson

Outlook

Sure, the Nationals failed in bringing back Harper this winter. And yes, it will be brutal for them (and their fans) to watch as they play against their former superstar slugger 19 times a season. 

But the Nationals might actually have a better overall roster to begin 2019 than they finished 2018 with.

Last year, Washington ranked 15th in baseball with a 4.05 bullpen ERA. The only playoff teams they finished ahead of were the Braves (4.15) and Indians (4.60). They also ranked 26th in bullpen WAR (0.4) by FanGraphs' calculation.

Their two main additions in that area — Rosenthal and Barraclough — have solid track records. Rosenthal was worth 1.6 WAR the last year he pitched (2017) and he only threw 47.2 innings that season. Barraclough was rough last year (-0.6 WAR), but posted 2.7 WAR in the previous two seasons combined in the Marlins bullpen.

There's obviously risk with both arms (Rosenthal is coming off Tommy John surgery), but there's also upside with a pair of 28-year-olds who have absolutely nasty stuff. Couple them with elite closer Sean Doolittle and the Nats have the makings of a very good three-headed monster in the bullpen. Their most recent relief reinforcement — Tony Sipp, signed earlier this week — had a 1.86 ERA with the Astros last year and has a career 3.67 ERA in 580 appearances.

The Nationals also made some major upgrades to their catching position. They finished 25th in OPS from that spot last year (.624), which was the second-worst mark in the NL. FanGraphs pitted Washington as 24th in the league in catcher's WAR (0.5), so it wasn't just the offense.

The two new veteran additions — Gomes and Suzuki — combined for 4.2 WAR last year on their previous teams (the Indians and Braves, respectively). They should form a much better more productive pairing than the Wieters-Pedro Severino-Spencer Kieboom catching group from a year ago.

Want to keep going? The Nationals wound up with Wilmer Difo as their primary second baseman for most of last year because Daniel Murphy only played in 56 games due to injury and the late-season trade to Chicago. Dozier should help stabilize second base for Washington and provide more offensive firepower as even during a down year in 2018 (.696 OPS), he still far outperformed Difo. Dozier scored 100 runs in four straight seasons in Minnesota and clubbed a combined 76 homers with 192 RBI from 2016-17 while finishing in the Top 15 in AL MVP voting each season.

Corbin is a huge addition for the rotation, even if it took a lot of money ($140 million over 6 years). It gives the Nationals the best 1-2-3 punch in baseball...if they can all stay healthy.

The Nationals also have a budding star in Soto, which should help ease the pain of Harper leaving. As the youngest player in the big leagues last year, Soto hit .292 with a .406 on-base percentage, 22 homers and 70 RBI in only 116 games. Between the majors and minors, he crushed 36 bombs, drove in 122 runs and drew 108 walks in 155 games. Oh yeah, and did we mention he just turned 20 in October?

This lineup shouldn't struggle to score runs, which is an impressive feat given they relied so much on Harper and Murphy the last few seasons. The rotation is better, the bullpen is better and they have more depth than ever before.

The only question about this team is the window of contention. The Nationals have a huge payroll even without Harper (Opening Day payroll projected at just under $200 million) and there's definitely a sense of urgency to win NOW. After 2019, Rendon becomes a free agent, Zimmerman has a $20 million team option that almost assuredly won't be picked up and they'll have to make decisions on options for Eaton, Gomes and Doolittle.

The Nationals also have more than $80 million tied up in just their three starting pitchers for next year, which could leave them in a tight spot in any attempts to add to the roster.

The only members of their core guaranteed to be back in 2020 is the trio of arms plus Turner, Soto and Robles. 

The championship window may well be closing after this year, so it's another season of "now or never" for the Nationals. And we know that mindset and level of expectations haven't worked out well for them in the past, even when they had Harper.

But I'm betting on the improved roster across the board to take control of the powerhouse NL East and this very well could be the year they finally advance beyond the NLDS. Imagine that for Year 1 post-Harper.

Prediction: 1st in NL East

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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Even if they don't get Bryce Harper back, the Nationals just ensured they'll be a threat to Cubs, NL in 2019

Even if they don't get Bryce Harper back, the Nationals just ensured they'll be a threat to Cubs, NL in 2019

The Washington Nationals may not re-sign Bryce Harper, but they certainly won't be on the outside looking in at the National League pennant race.

The Nats shook up the baseball world Tuesday afternoon when they inked Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million deal, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.

The exact details of the contract are unknown, but Corbin gets a deal the same length as Yu Darvish's with the Cubs, only with an extra $14 million added on. That gives Corbin the 18th-highest AAV (average annual value) contract in baseball and the Nationals already boast Max Scherzer (6th) and Stephen Strasburg (10th) on that same list.

It pushes the Nationals' estimated payroll to about $196 million for 2019, which is only $10 million under the luxury tax. 

That may make it impossible for them to go out and sign Harper to a megadeal unless the Nats front office can unload some major salary somewhere along the line, but Corbin certainly legitimizes Washington's playoff chances. On the other hand, bolstering the rest of the roster is a nice recruiting pitch to Harper as the Nats front office can prove they're all about trying to bring a championship to D.C.

A three-headed monster of Scherzer-Corbin-Strasburg in the rotation is absolutely incredible assuming they can all stay healthy (something Strasburg has not been able to accomplish yet in his career). The Nationals then roll out Tanner Roark and Joe Ross — who most certainly are no slouches — as their Nos. 4 and 5 options on the starting staff.

Even without Harper, the Top 4 in the Nats lineup still has to rank among the best in the NL with some combination of:

1. Adam Eaton
2. Trea Turner
3. Anthony Rendon
4. Juan Soto

The Nationals have been very aggressive this offseason, supplementing their lineup with a pair of veteran catchers acquired via trade (Yan Gomes) and free agency (Kurt Suzuki). They also picked up two low-risk/high-reward bullpen arms in Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to work in front of incumbent closer Sean Doolittle.

The Corbin deal gives the Nats 25/1 odds to win the World Series:

That's bad news for any Cubs fans under the illusion the Nats would fade into obscurity without Harper. 

The good news for the Cubs is the NL East may waste all their energy beating up on each other in the 2019 regular season as the Braves and Phillies are going all-in and the Mets just pulled off a big trade for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

That's a lot of talent headed to one division this winter:

Good thing for the Cubs they only have to play each of those teams 6-7 times a year.

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