The Nationals need a fifth starter. Or do they?
It’s easy to look at the current state of the rotation and conclude there’s a gaping hole behind the otherwise strong quartet of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. Joe Ross won’t return from Tommy John surgery until July at best. Erick Fedde and A.J. Cole are unproven and/or uninspiring from what we’ve seen of each so far. And Edwin Jackson is an unsigned free agent, not to mention the ultimate journeyman who keeps getting opportunities but never really seizes one.
So it’s not unfair to suggest the Nationals’ current options to hold the final spot in their rotation are awfully underwhelming, and Mike Rizzo would be wise to make a move before pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach in 37 days.
It’s also not unfair, though, to question how important a fifth starter really is for this team at this time. To be honest, it wasn’t particularly important last season.
Lest anyone forget, the Nationals did not get a whole lot of quality work out of the pitchers who filled that No. 5 job behind the big four. The two primary starters to hold that job were Ross and Jackson, and collectively they went 10-9 with a 5.04 ERA in 26 starts with a hefty 1.44 WHIP.
That’s not too good, but it should be noted the Nats, as a team, still went 15-11 in those 26 games, thanks in no small part to a whole lot of run support. And they wound up winning 97 games overall, 20 games better than anyone else in the division.
Put another way: The Nationals’ chances of winning another division title in 2018 probably aren’t going to change much based on the identity of their No. 5 starter.
That said, their chances of winning in October could very well change based on the identity of their No. 3 starter. And that’s what this discussion really is about.
Are the Nats willing to take another crack at postseason success with either Gonzalez or Roark pitching behind Scherzer and Strasburg in the rotation? Gonzalez (as you painfully know by now) has never reached the sixth inning in six career postseason starts. And though he has never even picked up a decision in October, he has started three of the Nationals’ four elimination games, each of them an underwhelming performance that has left his team in a tough spot.
Roark, meanwhile, might yet prove to be an effective playoff pitcher, but we haven’t had many opportunities to judge him. He has appeared in only three postseason games, starting only one (in which he put 11 batters on base in only 4 1/3 innings).
None of this is to suggest Gonzalez and Roark are the primary reason the Nats have never been able to get past the National League Division Series. There are far more significant culprits.
But there’s a compelling argument to be made the Nationals would benefit from fielding a postseason rotation with a better No. 3 starter. Someone who could join Scherzer and Strasburg in creating a fearsome pitching trio that would take pressure off the rest of the staff.
Acquiring such a pitcher is easier said than done. It’s either going to cost big-time money or top prospects. But if the Nats are convinced they need to bolster their rotation before the start of the spring training, they might just be convinced it’s worth it to invest in a No. 3 starter instead of bargain basement shopping for a No. 5 starter.