Mike Rizzo stirred when asked a particular question at Nationals Winterfest.
“Starting pitching is king,” Rizzo said. “Our philosophy is pitching, defense, athleticism...that's how we've won. When we put our guy on the mound (and he), each day, gives a chance to win, you've created yourself a chance to have a really good ballclub and play deep into October. That's our philosophy.
“There's different ways to do this. We've seen the 'bullpenning' and that type of thing in playoff baseball, and that's fine. But for the marathon that is the season, you better have some starters that you can run out there and give you a chance to win each and every day and that's what we've always tried to do here.”
With that, Rizzo squashed any idea the Nationals would skimp on starters this offseason, that they may begin to shift from the idea of massive investment up front. They pay for starting pitching. The approach won’t change as long as Rizzo is in charge.
Washington making two changes to the rotation is a jolt. Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez will not make a start for the team for the first time since 2012. In are Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez. One costs $140 million, the other $19 million for two years. The average starting pitcher makes $3,174,049, according to Spotrac. Almost half of Washington’s projected payroll is spent on starting pitching. The top four will average $21.4 million in salary next season.
So, what does the club have? In a nutshell: a perennial Cy Young candidate who refuses to regress (thus far); an ultra-talented, annually injured second starter; a large investment in an ascending lefty and a bet on a pitcher in his mid-30s who junk-balled his way to rejuvenation.
A run through 2018 WAR (via Fangraphs) reflects kindly on the new rotation: Scherzer 7.2, Strasburg 2.3, Corbin 6.3, Sanchez 2.4 The Dodgers’ top four starters look like this: Clayton Kershaw 3.5, Walker Buehler 3.3, Hyun-Jin Ryu 2.0 and Rich Hill at 1.9. The Braves’ top four starters: Mike Foltynewicz 3.9, Sean Newcomb 1.9, Kevin Gausman 2.3 and Julio Teheran 0.7. Those latter two teams were 1-2 last season in NL starters’ ERA.
This is a small sample -- just last season -- and two comparison points, but the idea is clear: The Nationals, again, are built to match any rotation.
Regression can be expected in two places. Scherzer is moving into his age-35 season, which is the only reason to expect a step back. To this point, Scherzer’s work ethic and diabolical brain have been plenty to stall any tumble forced by age. He’s led the National League in WHIP and strikeouts for three consecutive years. His 2018 season was better than his 2017 season, when he won his third overall Cy Young Award. Scherzer remains at the top of the league and on the hunt for improvement.
“There was a little tweak I made to the curveball that sharpened it up a little bit, and I actually started throwing my cutter back door to the lefties,” Scherzer said recently. “That's a really difficult pitch for me to execute. I was able to start executing that a little bit. I think that's something I can continue to grow as I get more feel for it. For me, learning that pitch -- not only how to execute it glove-side, but maybe I can execute it arm-side -- who knows? Maybe it'll stay the same, maybe I'll get better at it. Those are the little things you think about of what can you do between now and spring training to create that feel.”
He tags Dec. 1, Jan. 1, spring training report day and Opening Day as markers. Scherzer wants to feel a certain way at each point. Unlike most pitchers, he continues to throw right after the season ends. Not hard. Just enough to keep the tracks greased in addition to his other workouts.
Strasburg spent much of the offseason working out in Washington after going through a velocity dip on all fronts last season. His fastball was down one mph, his slider three. And, again, he was injured during the year.
"He did dip,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “I think rest and I've watched him work out -- he stayed here in Washington, he's been working out -- he's been doing unbelievable. I think the velo will be back. The other thing that helped him, because he didn't have his velo, he actually pitched. He started thinking, ‘I can get guys out without throwing 98 miles per hour,’ which is kind of nice. In his mind, he feels really good about that."
That is part Martinez’s eternally upbeat speak (he once pointed out Daniel Murphy was unable to run during rehab, then called it a good thing), part interesting, part troubling. There’s no reason Strasburg should have experienced a dip in his age-30 season. It did prompt him to use his slider more -- a pitch he once blamed for a partially torn pronator tendon in his right elbow -- as well as his changeup, which opposing hitters label his best pitch.
Corbin’s jump has been well-documented since he signed. A second off-speed pitch, essentially a slower version of his slider that acts like a curveball, helped bolster his strikeout totals and slash his ERA last season. The difference between him and Gonzalez in the third spot projects to be significant. The two had a 4.3 WAR gap between them last season.
Sanchez’s launch from the scrap heap to paid represents the Nationals’ greatest risk. Despite the hefty investment, they are saddled with minimal depth in the rotation. Sanchez averaged 23 starts the last five seasons. Even if he hits his average when further aging, the Nationals will need to find a way to fill his gaps. Essentially, 40 starts are available to the combination of Joe Ross and Erick Fedde via the fifth spot in the rotation and Sanchez’s lack of durability. Strasburg’s proclivity to land on the disabled further boosts the space to fill. Rizzo’s remaining work will involve padding the back-end options.
At the least, Rizzo can look at his rotation with satisfaction. He touted the necessity of investment, backed his words with actions, then constructed a top four as good as any in the league. The question, as always, is if it all holds. It rarely does.
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