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John Smoltz says Nationals’ top starters have ‘better stuff’ than Braves’ historic Big 3

John Smoltz says Nationals’ top starters have ‘better stuff’ than Braves’ historic Big 3

The Nationals rode their starting pitching to their first World Series title in franchise history last October and among those impressed is Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who now works as an analyst for MLB Network.

Smoltz was a member of the Braves’ vaunted Big 3 that dominated the National League during the ’90s and early 2000s as Atlanta won 14 consecutive division titles. Alongside fellow Cooperstown legends Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, the trio combined to earn six Cy Young awards and 22 All-Star appearances as well as the 1995 World Series.

NBC Sports Washington’s Nationals Talk crew sat down with Smoltz and asked him for his impressions of the trio Washington has built atop its rotation. He didn’t shy away from comparing the two title-winning groups.

“I think they have better stuff than we did,” Smoltz said. “There’s a lot of staffs today that have better stuff than we did. When you talk about the longevity and the health that we were able to sustain, that’s a totally different animal when you think about how baseball is played today and the injury rate.”

The Nationals’ starters are among the best strikeout artists in the league, an area the Braves’ trio didn’t put much emphasis on. For example, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin have combined for seven 200-strikeout seasons over the last three years. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz compiled just six campaigns with 200+ strikeouts despite having careers that touched three decades.

Of course, baseball is played very differently in 2020 than it was in the 1990s. A premium is placed on pitchers racking up Ks while hitters have become less concerned with high strikeout totals. But according to Smoltz, it was the longevity Atlanta’s frontline starters enjoyed that made its rotation among the best in history.

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“If the Mets’ staff back in the day stayed healthy, they would’ve been better than ours for any given one, two, three years,” Smoltz said. “Same thing you could say about the Nationals. But the biggest thing we were able to do is stay healthy and that’s what separates us from the rest.”

The Mets’ trio of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and David Cone each put together dominant campaigns in 1988 but never again each made 30 starts in the same season. Atlanta rose to contention in 1991 and left New York behind as injuries plagued the club from Queens.

As for the present day Nationals group, they’ve only had one year together as Corbin just signed with the team prior to last season. But one season was enough for Smoltz to be convinced: This trio is special.

“From the standpoint of playground baseball, who you gonna draft? You’re gonna draft those guys before you’re gonna draft us,” Smoltz said. “Even though we made it to the Hall of Fame, our stuff was nowhere near the kind of dynamic stuff that you’re talking about with the Nats.”

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Sean Doolittle says Nationals players will continue to support minor leaguers

Sean Doolittle says Nationals players will continue to support minor leaguers

Though the Nationals reversed course on their pay cut for minor-league players, Sean Doolittle still plans on lending his support.

Last week, just hours after it was reported that the Nationals would be reducing the pay rate for minor-league players from $400 per week to $300 for the month of June, Sean Doolittle announced that the major leaguers would cover those cuts.

A short time later, the team announced that it would revert back to the weekly $400 salary for the month of June. While that is good news and something that pleased Doolittle, it does not mean he and other players are done helping minor leaguers in the organization.

On Wednesday Doolittle tweeted out a statement sharing his excitement for the increased pay rates. Additionally, he noted that Nationals players will continue to offer financial help for other players in the organization.

"Nationals players are partnering with More Than Baseball to contribute funds that will offer further assistance and financial support to any minor leaguers who were in the Nationals organization as of March 1."

More Than Baseball is a non-profit organization that aims to provide minor-league baseball players across the country and world with resources to succeed both on and off the field. 

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As the back-and-forth drama plays out regarding the 2020 MLB season, it can be easy to find the negatives in the baseball community at the current moment. However, the gestures by Doolittle and the Nationals players show the good, and once again demonstrate Doolittle's ability to be a powerful voice in a complicated time

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MLB return: Schedules of other leagues show how much baseball is scrambling

MLB return: Schedules of other leagues show how much baseball is scrambling

The NBA appeared to pull things together Wednesday, following the NHL.

Basketball is expected to return July 31 in Orlando with an inventive, though truncated, format. A quick eight-game wrap to the regular season will be followed by the playoffs, according to ESPN. All in one place. The NHL will not start training camp before July 1. It has not determined when the playoffs may begin. The league shelved the regular season but will use “hub cities” for a playoff tournament when they deem it safe. No date has been set yet.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is trying to launch itself via a much quicker, and earlier, timeline.

Officials want to play at the end of June or start of July. They are currently haggling to get there.

Multiple reports earlier in the week said the league was considering a 50-game schedule. This is not an authentic pursuit of playing just 50 games. Rather, it was a fist clench from league commissioner Rob Manfred against the players’ insistence their prorated salaries will be the lone salary cut. Manfred is suggesting if that is true, then he has the right to dictate scheduling.

The players previously suggested a 114-game schedule. The number between the two proposals -- 82 -- remains the most-likely outcome.

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But, baseball continued its jousting and contorting and time loss Wednesday, jeopardizing the entire process. After rejecting the 114-game proposal, the owners said they would not send a counter, according to The Athletic. Further, the league said it has started talks with owners about playing a shorter season without fans, The Athletic reported. This brings the 50-game scenario back into play.

The calendar is not baseball’s friend in the near-term or around the bend. Pushing the season further into the fall and winter increases risk and logistical problems. It also cuts the offseason down.

Blitzing toward a start time with multiple questions about health and the coronavirus still unanswered delivers another set of problems. Baseball needs to race to a start so it can have a legitimate season and acceptable chance at a finish. Most of the prospective money for the season would be delivered by the playoffs. Playing without a postseason would fall into the “something-is-better-than-nothing” category, but barely. Playing a short season would also only amplify the risk-reward questions for the players. Why put so much on the line for 50 games? Or even 82?

And, don’t think both sides are not currently keeping score for the winter of 2021, after the current collective bargaining agreement expires. A brutish labor fight was already coming. Rule changes, perhaps league realignment, the typical eye-gouging over the splits of cash. The core of mistrust for players remains in place: The owners have not shown their full financial situation. Until that changes, both sides will be shouting from bunkers, no-man’s land in between them, whispering to each other how vile the other side is. Agreements are hard to come by in those circumstances.

Sunday marks the close to the first week of June. Players want three weeks of spring training. They also want to start the season sometime between June 30 and July 4. Which means if they can’t suddenly construct a bridge in the next handful of days, they have a week to pull everything together. The other leagues used creativity, an expanded timetable and risk reduction to present viable ways forward. Baseball has deployed none of that to this point.

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