The Washington Nationals have become closely associated with starting pitching, having won a World Series last fall in large part due to their rotation. But in the 10 years with Mike Rizzo in charge of the front office, they have never made it a big priority at the trade deadline.
That could be for two reasons. One is cost, as trading for a difference-making starter does not come cheap. And second, the Nats haven't really needed to add starters midseason because they have put such a premium on the position in free agency and offseason trades.
This year, though, their approach may need to change as the Nats' rotation so far has not been the strength they envisioned it would be. Most notably, Stephen Strasburg is hurt and Anibal Sanchez is struggling.
Strasburg is dealing with a nerve issue in his right wrist and is now awaiting test results from a specialist. The 2019 World Series MVP, Strasburg is about as indispensible as anyone on the Nationals' roster.
Sanchez, the team's fourth starter, has stumbled out of the gate. He is 0-3 with an 8.50 ERA and, though it has only been four starts, everything is magnified in this shortened MLB season.
Sanchez now has only two starts remaining before the Aug. 31 trade deadline arrives. If there is still uncertainty involving Strasburg, and Sanchez hasn't figured it out by then, the Nats may need to explore their options.
Nats' notable trade deadline acquisitions since 2010
2019 - Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland, Roenis Elias 2017 - Howie Kendrick, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Brandon Kintzler 2016 - Mark Melancon 2015 - Jonathan Papelbon 2014 - Asdrubal Cabrera 2013 - Scott Hairston 2011 - Jonny Gomes 2010 - Tanner Roark, Wilson Ramos
They have some decent pitchers in their stable already in Austin Voth (5.00 ERA, 18 IP) and Erick Fedde (2.55 ERA, 17.2 IP), but without Strasburg and an effective Sanchez in the equation, the numbers are starting to look fairly bleak. Keep in mind, they are already down one pitcher from their offseason blueprint, as Joe Ross opted out.
The Nats are 24th in rotation ERA (5.23) this season after ranking second last year. In fact, that statistic has been a good predictor of their success since 2012, when they started making the postseason regularly.
In their playoff years (2012, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019), the Nats have an average starters ERA ranking of 2.2. In the years they've missed the playoffs (2013, 2015, 2018), their average rotation ERA ranking is 9.0. This season, Nats starters also rank 28th in batting average against (.284), 15th in strikeouts-per-nine (8.45), plus 26th in average exit velocity (89.1 mph), per Statcast.
Starting pitching is clearly a need at the moment, but what is less clear is how the trade deadline will operate this season amid Covid-19, with the lack of in-season data to evaluate players on and the fact 16 teams will now make the playoffs. One could imagine there will be fewer teams willing to sell if they see a viable path to the the postseason.
From the Nationals' side of things, it would make a lot of sense if they chose to be aggressive. Sure, they just won the World Series, but they also need to consider the title window they currently have with Max Scherzer at 36 years old and both Juan Soto and Trea Turner on rookie contracts. They won't have Scherzer forever, or Soto and Turner playing for less than $8 million combined.
If the Nats do determine they need a starter, they won't need another ace. Even with Strasburg down, they have Scherzer and Patrick Corbin. They also do not have a ton of prospect depth to deal from.
But if they wanted to bring in a starter, there are a few impending free agents on struggling teams, which is generally a good rule of thumb in these situations. Someone like Taijuan Walker of the Mariners (4.00 ERA, 27 IP) could come relatively cheap. Or, Kevin Gausman (4.21 ERA, 25.2 IP) or Drew Smyly (3.24 ERA, 8.1 IP), both of the Giants, could make sense.
None of these pitchers would set the world on fire, but they might not cost much and they would add depth. At this point, another veteran pitcher who can hold a league average ERA might be all it takes to help stabilize what has traditionally been the Nationals' biggest strength.