The garish numbers bear out what was known: the Nationals starting pitching was bad in 2020.
It’s weird to say, think, write. The organization has been anchored in starters since turning the corner toward relevance in 2012. Mike Rizzo builds the foundation of the team around starting pitching. It’s also where the large sums of cash go.
But, their poor pitching was an emphatic reality in 2020. So, as part of our ongoing look at how the Nationals may be reconstructed in the coming months, we turn to the failings of the starting rotation.
The team was 27th in ERA among starting pitchers last year. Look at that number again. It’s a blistering drop from the organization’s norm.
They were 2nd in 2019, 13th in 2018, 4th in 2017, 2nd in 2016, 7th in 2015, 1st in 2014.
To be below average is unheard of. To wallow near the bottom of the entire sport is another level entirely.
This all starts and ends with the top three in the rotation. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin each failed in various ways in 2020. The Nationals can point to defined track records among the trio to cast aside results from this oddball summer. They can also have modest concern because if that group is not among the sport’s upper tier, this team will have a very difficult time winning on a regular basis.
So, where is each of those Big Three?
Strasburg is healing. Mike Rizzo said prior to Strasburg’s right wrist surgery the expectation was for him to be ready by spring training. Rizzo reiterated that a few weeks later during his final meeting of the season with reporters. Strasburg was never heard from following the injury after declining multiple interview requests through a team spokesperson. The Nationals had not determined why Strasburg’s right wrist impingement came about. It caused year one of his seven-year deal to be flushed. To this point, the Nationals have not received the negative end of long-term pitcher contracts. Here, Strasburg is 0-for-1 on his $245 million deal.
A strange thing began happening to Scherzer during the season: he was failing at the most crucial times. The OPS against him from pitch 101 and beyond was 1.526. His first-inning problems -- as much as he generally has “problems” -- followed him again this season. It’s what was happening late that became an outlier. In 2019 the OPS against him after pitch 101 was .532, easily the best of any 25-pitch segment during an outing. He was frustrated with his late failures this year because he said those are the precise situations he trains for. In the past, he dominated the end of his starts. Now, the question is if he’s more of a six-inning pitcher who needs to stay under 100 pitches. The answer is he’s probably the same as ever in a regular year. And, one of the offseason questions for the Nationals is if they are intent on offering Scherzer a contract extension before everyone regroups in West Palm Beach. Only one year remains on his seven-year deal.
No one in the National League allowed more hits than Patrick Corbin in 2020. His hits per nine innings jumped by more than four year-over-year. His slider, in particular, was less effective in 2020. It carried a 52 percent whiff percentage in 2019. That dropped to 38.2 percent last season. Opponents hit 40 points better against his slider in 2020 than 2019. He never found a groove.
Beyond what is expected to be a self-correcting group up front, the fourth starter spot is open. The fifth starter spot will sound much like period years. Erick Fedde and Joe Ross will pitch to obtain it. Perhaps the competition will include Austin Voth, too. Though he may end up a free agent.
Which makes the main question the fourth starter spot. The organization holds a $12 million contract option on Aníbal Sánchez. It’s unlikely to be picked up. Which means he is out and needs to be replaced.
The shoot-for-the-moon option is Trevor Bauer on a one-year or multi-year deal. There are arguments for both. A one-year deal gives the Nationals flexibility and stunning rotation depth. A multi-year deal gives them someone to slot in if Scherzer leaves. All of this is contingent on two things. First, will the team want to put out the money Bauer will demand after the best season of his career? Second, does Rizzo think the boisterous Bauer would work in the Nationals’ clubhouse? “No” is probably the answer to both.
Charlie Morton could be an intriguing option. He’s the highest-paid player on Tampa Bay’s roster. It holds a $15 million option on Morton for next year, with no buyout. So, the Rays could just decline the option and put Morton, 36 (and soon to be 37), into free agency. His numbers were down this year. However, he was an excellent pitcher the prior three years. In a suppressed market, and following a mediocre year, Morton’s cost could be close to Sánchez’s option. His deal with Tampa Bay following an All-Star season in Houston was two years, $30 million, with the second year a club option. The Nationals paying a two-year, $25 million contract to a solid fourth starter would make sense.
A bevy of other veteran pitching names will hit free agency when the season ends Oct. 31.
Which means the Nationals know 80 percent of their rotation. How much they want to back everything with an investment in the No. 4 spot is the main question. And, ultimately, what the front three do or don’t is what matters.