The Nationals will enter the 2020 season boasting one of the best rotations in baseball, just as they have every year since they rose to contention in 2012.
Each of the top four spots are a given. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez are all coming off strong seasons and will hope to replicate their success after pitching deep into the postseason.
At the back end, three pitchers will be given the chance to compete in Spring Training for the fifth-starter role: Austin Voth, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde.
This is the second installment of a Spring Training preview series, broken down by position group. The first story focused on the outfield, which you can find here.
Here’s a snapshot of the Nationals’ starting rotation as they prepare for the trip down to West Palm Beach.
All ages listed are as of Opening Day.
No. 1 Starter – Max Scherzer
2019 Stats: 27 starts, 172 1/3 innings, 11-7 record, 2.92 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 1.027 WHIP, 243 strikeouts, 33 walks, 18 home runs allowed and 7 hit batters
Contract: $35,920,616 million salary in 2020, free agent after 2021
At the start of last season, Max Scherzer was heralded as one of the most durable starters in the sport. He’d made at least 30 starts in 10 consecutive years, one fewer than the Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester for the longest active streak in the majors.
But back and rhomboid strains limited him to just 27 starts in 2019, his fewest since making just seven (16 total appearances) as a rookie in 2008. Then neck spasms forced manager Davey Martinez to scratch him from his World Series Game 5 start, only for him to return three days later after receiving a cortisone shot.
It was the first injury-plagued season of Scherzer’s career. And at 35 years old, he must now prove he can still fend off the aging curve while keeping his body healthy for the course of a full season—something he's done with force to this point of his career. Speaking at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event on Jan. 11, Scherzer insisted that he feels great as he revs up for the new season.
“Now that the calendar has turned to January, I’m feeling actually really good right now,” Scherzer said. “Throwing and running and doing everything I need to do. My body is in a pretty good spot considering how late we played last year.”
The Nationals will likely be cautious with Scherzer, focusing on making sure he’s healthy more than anything else by the time they get to Opening Day.
No. 2 Starter – Stephen Strasburg
2019 Stats: 33 starts, 209 innings, 18-6 record, 3.32 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 1.038 WHIP, 251 strikeouts, 56 walks, 24 home runs allowed and 10 hit batters
Contract: $35 million salary in 2020, free agent after 2026
Contrary to his teammate alongside him at the front of the Nationals’ rotation, Stephen Strasburg doesn’t have the reputation of being healthy all year. Yet, Strasburg led the NL with 209 regular-season innings then went on to throw another 36 1/3 in the playoffs.
It was by far the biggest workload of his career. In fact, before last season Strasburg hadn’t even reached the 200-inning threshold since 2014. So heading into 2020 with a World Series MVP award added to his résumé and a seven-year $245 million deal secured, Strasburg will look to prove that his injury history is well behind him.
“I think [my body] kind of reverted to what I’ve done in the past and I think it’s feeling good,” Strasburg said at WinterFest. “It’s feeling strong. Some stuff [was] tweaked as far as the lifting and everything. Kind of tapering off of that to start, allowing the body to recover. A lot of the adjustments that will need to be addressed is going to be through Spring Training and managing the workload, building up.”
Strasburg will also look to continue expanding his pitch selection with less of a dependency on his fastball. According to Brooks Baseball, Strasburg threw his four-seamer a personal-low 28.7 percent of the time, down from his career average of 49.6 percent. Meanwhile, he threw each of his sinker, changeup and curveball more often than he ever had.
No. 3 Starter – Patrick Corbin
2019 Stats: 33 starts, 202 innings, 14-7 record, 3.25 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 1.183 WHIP, 238 strikeouts, 70 walks, 24 home runs allowed and 3 hit batters
Contract: $19,416,667 million salary in 2020, free agent after 2024
In his first season with the Nationals, Patrick Corbin pitched exactly as advertised. His wipeout slider dominated lefties, he racked up strong strikeout numbers and put together a strong enough season to earn a vote on an NL Cy Young ballot.
Corbin also proved prone to stretches of dominance mixed in with the occasional dud. Only Corbin and the Cleveland Indians’ Shane Bieber had at least 24 quality starts (six innings, three earned runs or fewer allowed) while also posting five or more starts with at least five runs allowed.
When he was struggling, Corbin told reporters that the biggest key was to keep his fastball down.
Corbin often used his fastball to set up his potent slider with two strikes. Per Brooks Baseball, on fastballs in the top three quadrants of the strike zone, hitters posted a .475 slugging percentage—struggling in particular with pitches on his arm-side. For reference, Paul Goldschmidt slugged .476 last season.
So in order to avoid turning opposing hitters into Goldschmidt, Corbin will need to work on keeping his fastball down in the zone and setting up his renowned slider.
No. 4 Starter - Aníbal Sánchez
2019 Stats: 30 starts, 166 innings, 11-8 record, 3.85 ERA, 4.44 FIP, 1.271 WHIP, 134 strikeouts, 58 walks, 22 home runs allowed and 4 hit batters
Contract: $7 million salary in 2020, $18 million team option with $6 million buyout for 2021
In Aníbal Sánchez, the Nationals have yet another starter on a quest to prove he can stay effective with age. The veteran right-hander’s fastball velocity dipped down to a career-worst 90.7 mph, but he also pulled back on his usage of it and relied more on his wide array of off-speed pitches.
Sánchez stumbled to start the year before sitting for two weeks with a hamstring strain. But after he returned, he regained his form and put together a 3.42 ERA with an opponents’ OPS of just .668 the rest of the way. Despite his age, Sánchez showed that the work he put in to resurrect his career with the Atlanta Braves in 2017 was no fluke.
“Right now, [I’m] sore,” Sánchez said at WinterFest. “Everything is sore right now. I’ve been working out for two months already and I start throwing in three weeks…I’m not 22, I’m no [Juan] Soto right now but I’m going to be fine for Spring Training.”
Like the rest of his rotation mates, Sánchez was relied on deep into October. It was the first time he’d pitched past a division series since 2013, so his body wasn’t accustomed to that kind of workload coupled with a short turnaround the following year.
No. 5 Starter – Austin Voth, Joe Ross or Erick Fedde
2019 Stats: 8 starts (9 appearances), 43 2/3 innings, 2-1 record, 3.30 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 1.053 WHIP, 44 strikeouts, 13 walks, 5 home runs allowed and 3 hit batters
Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2023, free agent after 2025
2019 Stats: 9 starts (27 appearances), 64 innings, 4-4 record, 5.48 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 1.672 WHIP, 57 strikeouts, 33 walks, 7 home runs allowed and 4 hit batters
Contract: $1.5 million salary in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2021, free agent after 2021
2019 Stats: 12 starts (21 appearances), 78 innings, 4-2 record, 4.50 ERA, 5.34 FIP, 1.462 WHIP, 41 strikeouts, 33 walks, 11 home runs allowed and 2 hit batters
Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2022, free agent after 2024
One of the biggest competitions the Nationals will host this spring, the fifth-starter job is once again no sure bet as the team prepares for Spring Training.
Erick Fedde faces the longest odds to win the spot, as his lack of substantial service time at the major-league level over his first three seasons created a rare fourth minor-league option. This will give the Nationals the ability to shuttle him back and forth between the big-league club and their farm system as needed throughout the year.
Austin Voth and Joe Ross, however, are out of options and must make the team out of Spring Training or else be forced onto waivers. This makes them the two leading candidates to nab that fifth spot, with no clear front-runner heading into Grapefruit League play.
Both pitchers will need to produce positive results on the mound during Spring Training, a requirement only of players fighting for roster spots. Although they both still have plenty of chances to impress their coaches in practices and bullpen sessions, their statistics from game action figure to weigh heavy in the minds of Martinez and his coaching staff.
The man who falls short will likely then be moved to the bullpen, serving as the team’s long reliever. Regardless, both pitchers should benefit from going into the regular season with a set role. Voth, Ross and Fedde all alternated back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen and back again, a process that can be difficult for inexperienced players to adjust to.
But with Fedde likely remaining stretched out as a starter in the minor leagues as the next man up if an injury arises, both Voth and Ross can go into the 2020 season knowing the role they’re in will be theirs to keep if they find success in it.
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