Nationals

Nationals

Editor's note: This week across the NBC Sports Regional Networks, we'll be taking an in-depth look at some of the top free agents in baseball. Friday is dedicated to Patrick Corbin.

Chasing the Los Angeles Dodgers has become an annual event in the National League. 

Back-to-back World Series appearances were preceded by a league championship series appearance. In all, the Dodgers have made six consecutive playoff appearances, though the magic of 1988 still looms as their last title. And if a path to challenging them directly exists, it’s through left-handed pitching.

Annually, left-handed pitching is one of the few antidotes against L.A. Its lineup has become more balanced the last two seasons — recall how left-handed heavy it was, often on purpose, during the 2016 NLDS vs. the Nationals  — though still has a tough time versus southpaws. At least comparatively. The Dodgers finished with the NL’s best offense last season. They had the No. 1 OPS (.796) against right-handed pitching. They were eighth (.733) versus left-handed pitching.

Los Angeles was 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. 

Free agent left-handed starter Patrick 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.

Notable is Corbin did this work within the division against an opponent who knows him intimately, amplifying the difficulty. Think Max Scherzer vs. the Braves. Always a challenge, even when Atlanta was wobbling through recent seasons before hopping to the top of the National League East last season. No one is going to be more prepared than Scherzer. Yet, he often started postgame chats after starts against Atlanta with some variation of, “They know me so well, it really was a grind…”

 

The Nationals have a hole at their No. 3 spot in the rotation. It was formerly occupied by a left-handed curiosity named Gio Gonzalez. He became unlikely pals with Jonathan Papelbon and once ordered a 1980s-style boombox he believed could be carried next to his ear until it arrived in a cardboard box large enough to hold a credenza. Too large for shoulder occupancy, the boombox had to reside on the floor.

Without Gonzalez’s peccadilloes or southpaw deliveries or sigh-inducing outings, the Nationals are in search of a left-handed rotation piece. Corbin is the best available.

Right behind him, when ordered by WAR, is a diminishing Dallas Keuchel. J.A. Happ (who is 36) comes next in line. Gonzalez is behind him. He won’t be back. Of the 27 free agent starting pitchers who registered 0.1 WAR or more last season, just eight are left-handed. But three of them (Corbin, Keuchel and Happ) are 1-2-3 in WAR among available starters. 

That means the pool is limited and prime for overpays. Corbin, 29, is the lone lefty still ascending. He’s cut two earned runs from his ERA in the last two years after a return from Tommy John surgery. His strikeouts per nine took a significant jump this season 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 — should make him the offseason’s most expensive pitcher. If a team is trying to beat the Dodgers now, he just might be worth it. 
 

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