WASHINGTON -- Davey Martinez has plopped down into his black postgame seat day after day left with the same line of thought: the starting pitching has to be better.
It’s a strange consideration around these parts. The Nationals are synonymous with starting pitching. The Lerners pay for it; Mike Rizzo covets it; Davey Martinez deploys it. They all have World Series rings as a result.
This year’s starting pitching has been atrocious. The Nationals entered Tuesday night 27th in the major leagues in starters ERA. Their rotation led MLB in fWAR last season. It’s an unexpected and crippling gap. The question is how they fix it. Little help exists internally. Costly help is available externally.
Stephen Strasburg will not be helping. He is scheduled for right wrist surgery Wednesday. His season is over. Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin are under-performing. Aníbal Sánchez (6.48 ERA, zero bWAR) has been one of the worst starters in the major leagues. So has Austin Voth (6.65 ERA; -0.1 bWAR). Tuesday’s starter, Erick Fedde, is trying to survive his yo-yoing position on the staff. When the rain hit -- and the tarp was properly unfurled -- Tuesday night, Fedde’s ERA was up to 3.57, a run higher than when his night began. The Nationals ended up losing, 8-3 to Philadelphia.
First to those in-house. Scherzer has twice been undermined by failures at the end of his outings. He looked like his dominant self for much of his last start. For four innings, he rolled. Then he tired, lost his command and was left on the mound too long. It blew up his pitching line and almost the game. The expectation for him is to once again be the sure thing on the staff.
Corbin’s numbers should balance out close to his career norms. He began the season well. His last two starts led to less-than-stellar outings and an ERA jump to 3.99. He should be fine.
Sánchez’s last outing was the first sign he may be able to resurrect his season: seven innings, one earned run, five strikeouts, no walks. His four previous outings suggested the opposite. Sánchez, 36, may be pitching for his career from here on. The Nationals hold a $12 million contract option on him for next season. They are unlikely to pick it up -- thinking they can find an equivalent or superior talent in what will be a suppressed free agent market -- which would make Sánchez a free agent. Sánchez needs a significant course correction in order to land a job next season, and for the Nationals to have a shot in this one.
Martinez said Tuesday they have to “fix” Voth. That means his rotation spot exists for at least another week (the trade deadline is at 4 p.m. on Aug. 31). Martinez also said he wants Voth to throw more fastballs the second time through the order and fewer sliders. Any change would seemingly behoove Voth at this point.
If Sánchez, Voth or Fedde continue to be mediocre -- or worse -- the Nationals don’t have much to choose from on the 40-man roster. Jackson Rutledge, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, is throwing at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg. Asked recently if he was a candidate for a spot start, Martinez said he was not. Rutledge remains raw. He’s focused on throwing strikes in Fredericksburg. Which makes him not big-league ready. Kyle McGowin is also in the 60-player pool. The Nationals would rather stick with what they have. Wil Crowe is the lone reasonable option at the alternate site.
Which means the Nationals move toward the trade deadline on the hunt. Starting pitching is never an inexpensive play, whether the cost is cash or prospects. They have to decide how much a veteran rental like Taijuan Walker or Kevin Gausman is worth to them. Two lower-lever prospects to bolster the rotation? Finances are also part of the equation. The Competitive Balance Tax is in effect this season. The Nationals do not want to exceed it, though there would be no current cash penalty to do so. But, it would restart their clock for future penalties should they go over again next season.
Here’s what is clear: they need more help if they want to push in this strange season. They are 11-16, in last place in the National League East and starting to reel. The same night Lucas Giolito threw a no-hitter for the Chicago White Sox, the Nationals endured another so-so start. They’re in an odd place: the starting pitching is a problem. They have less than a week to decide how to fix it.