Mike Rizzo made an argument last weekend about the importance of starting pitching. He also mentioned a nice visit with free agent left-hander Patrick Corbin.
Turns out those things came together to produce the offseason’s largest free agent deal to date.
NBC Sports Washington has confirmed that the Nationals agreed to a six-year, $140 million deal with Corbin on Tuesday. The agreement is pending a physical.
Corbin brings multiple qualities the Nationals desired. First, he is an experienced left-handed arm, something the rotation was lacking. Second, Corbin can slot into the the No. 3 spot in the rotation.
Corbin, 29, has a 3.91 career ERA and is coming off the best year of his six in the major leagues. He struck out 246 in 200 innings last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks en route to a 3.15 ERA and, a couple months later, enormous pay day in his new home.
Saturday, Rizzo said he met with Corbin a few days prior. They, along with principal owner Mark Lerner, went out to dinner and discussed the possibility of Corbin signing with the Nationals to bolster an already stout top of the rotation which features Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
“He’s one of the elite starting pitchers on the free agent market,” Rizzo said. “We have interest in him. We had a nice discussion with him. I had a personal discussion with him. He wanted to come down and see what we had down here and visit the city and the clubhouse. I thought that was a positive reaction by him. I’m not going to read too much into it. He’s a guy that obviously we’re interested in and would fit nicely on this team.”
Asked about a timeline, Rizzo now sounds prescient.
“I think he’s not afraid to do something early,” Rizzo said. “If he gets the deal he feels comfortable with, I think he will act. There’s been no timetable given by his representatives or by him. But we had a nice dinner and he spent the next day here. It was a really good meeting with his agent, myself, his wife and Mark Lerner were all there.”
Reports out of New York said the Yankees capped their offer at five years. The Nationals’ willingness to add an extra year is in line with their decision to give Scherzer a seven-year contract when several other teams balked at the length when he was a free agent in 2014.
The signing also ties the Nationals to gargantuan payments for starting pitching. Scherzer’s deal was $210 million, Strasburg’s $175 million and Corbin’s now $140 million. Three years remain on Scherzer’s deal. Strasburg’s contract runs until 2023 if he does not exercise any of the four opt outs which kick in following the 2019 season. It’s unlikely he will because the final year of his deal calls for a $45 million base salary.
That means the Nationals will have roughly $230 million tied up in three starting pitchers, who will be 30 or older by the midpoint of 2019, over the next three seasons.
Washington will also endure another cost because of the acquisition. It will forfeit the organization’s second- and fifth-highest picks in the 2019 MLB draft, as well as $1 million in international bonus pool money. The money is moot. The compensatory picks which move to Arizona are not.
Signing Corbin does give the Nationals a new weapon against reigning National League champion Los Angeles. The Dodgers were almost 100 points worse in OPS against left-handed pitching during the postseason. Rejuvenated Red Sox lefty David Price powered through them during the World Series: 13 ⅔ innings, 1.98 ERA.
Corbin dominated L.A. in the regular season before Price took his turn. Four starts, 23 ⅓ innings, 10 hits, 31 strikeouts, a .125 batting average against and an 0.77 ERA. That was the best Corbin pitched against any team he saw more than once during the 2018 season.
That will come up if the Nationals are able to vault themselves back into the playoffs after a middling 2018 which ended with them trailing the upstart Atlanta Braves in the National League East and narrowly ahead of the forward-moving Philadelphia Phillies.
A continued uptick from Corbin could help them get there. He has cut two earned runs from his ERA in the last two years after a return from Tommy John surgery in 2014. His strikeouts per nine took a significant jump in 2018 as his slider usage continued to rise and a “curveball” (it’s really just a slower slider) entered his repertoire. He’s also made 65 starts the last two years combined. Durability, high strikeout rate, and much-improved peripherals — particularly in hits allowed — made him the offseason’s top free agent pitcher.
Bringing him to Washington almost a week before the Winter Meetings was another step in Rizzo’s aggressive offseason. He signed catcher Kurt Suzuki and traded for catcher Yan Gomes to fix the Nationals’ biggest positional issue. Rizzo took a chance on Trevor Rosenthal after the reliever’s personal showcase showed he was again throwing in the upper 90s following Tommy John surgery. Reliever Kyle Barraclough was acquired for international slot money.
Only minor moves remain. Inviting a seasoned starting pitcher to spring training, finding a left-handed bench bat, as well as finding another left-hander for the bullpen are among the few topics to address.
This also signals the Nationals are likely out on Bryce Harper. They aggressively filled their gaps with initially moderate spending before pulling Corbin into the fold long-term. The top of their rotation is again arguably the best in baseball. The question is if it will be enough to deliver what has eluded the organization so often: playoff success.
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