This week we are counting down the biggest questions for the Nationals as they begin their 2016 spring training in Viera, Florida with their first official workout on Saturday. The second installment examines their starting rotation...
For several years running, the Nationals had been aggressive in upgrading their rotation over the offseason, even when it appeared to need no help and even when a new acquisition would leave a relatively accomplished pitcher - like Ross Detwiler or Tanner Roark - as the odd-man out. This winter, however, the Nationals decided to do nothing to significantly change their starting staff, unless you think highly of a post-Tommy John surgery Bronson Arroyo.
The Nationals have questions in their starting rotation really for the first time in years. If everything goes right, they will be just fine. But one injury could seriously test their depth, especially given the fact we don't know the specifics yet of their workload plan for Lucas Giolito.
Max Scherzer will lead their staff once again, but behind him are Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, two pitchers who had 2015 seasons that were not up to their normal standards. Behind them are Joe Ross - who has only 16 MLB appearances under his belt - and Roark, who had a forgettable 2015 season that saw him struggle with a variety of roles.
If Arroyo pans out, he will provide some veteran depth to that group. But if not, it could be A.J. Cole or Taylor Jordan they turn to as an injury replacement, depending on Giolito's availability.
There is potential for the Nationals' rotation to be very good, perhaps one of the best in the National League. There just appears to be less depth at the position than they have featured in years past.
The counter to that, however, would be the 2012 Nationals, who added Edwin Jackson before that season but were otherwise in worse shape - one could argue - than they are currently. Scherzer is a better No. 1 than Strasburg was, especially if you consider Strasburg was to be shut down in September. If Strasburg performs like he did in his final 10 starts of last season, he is a better No. 2 than Zimmermann. And then Roark, despite his troubles last year, is a more proven commodity than Detwiler was at the No. 5 spot going into that season.
Those Nationals won 98 games to lead the majors and they could have won a lot more if it weren't for injuries. This unit is certainly capable of matching that year's group, barring health. And they have the ultimate wild card in Giolito, who is the top prospect at his position in baseball but is likely to only be available for somewhere around 160-180 innings this year.
There is also the example of the Kansas City Royals, who this past fall won the World Series despite having the 22nd-ranked rotation in terms of starters ERA. Now, the Royals have a much better bullpen, defense and a more versatile lineup than the Nationals.
Winners of two straight AL pennants, the Royals are simply a better team, but they did prove that one can win without putting a ton of resources into a starting rotation, as the Nationals have in recent years. They also proved the New York Mets of all teams can be beaten that way, as well.
The Nationals have a fine rotation as they enter the 2016 rotation, but for the first time in a while it isn't an obvious strength with several questions of depth and inexperience behind their top three.