Their rotation already features two of the most expensive pitchers in baseball history, and now the Nationals are making a push to add a third high-priced arm.
This doesn’t necessarily seem to fit in with the prevailing wisdom in Major League Baseball circa 2018. Teams around the sport are de-emphasizing the classic workhorse starter, investing more in deep bullpens and even eschewing starters altogether in favor of one-inning openers designed to take advantage of lefty-righty matchups right from the outset of a ballgame.
The Nationals, though, still believe in the power of the dominant rotation. So even with Max Scherzer ($210 million) and Stephen Strasburg ($175 million) already consuming a large chunk of payroll, they’re very much in the market right now for another big-name starter, with left-hander Patrick Corbin atop their wish list.
“Starting pitching is king,” general manager Mike Rizzo said over the weekend at Nationals Winterfest. “Our philosophy is pitching, defense, athleticism. That’s how we’ve won. When we put our guy on the mound (and he) each day gives a chance to win, you’ve created yourself a chance to have a really good ballclub and play deep into October. That’s our philosophy.”
It’s a philosophy that has mostly worked out well for the Nationals during their seven seasons of winning baseball, and the fact rotation struggles played a major role in their disappointing 82-80 record this year perhaps underscores their desire to seek another frontline starter this winter.
“Our best month, we were 20-7,” manager Davey Martinez said, referring to this past May. “If you look at that month, our starters were unbelievable. They were going 6 2/3 innings, seven or eight innings, and we played really well. We need that. I’ve said that before: Starting pitching and defense win a lot of games.”
Martinez was right. The Nationals’ only highly successful month as a team also was the rotation’s only highly successful month on the mound. Starters posted a 2.26 ERA and averaged 6.33 innings during May, leading to way more wins than losses.
Then, with Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson on the disabled list, things fell apart. The Nationals rotation had a gaudy 5.54 ERA in June, averaging only 5.07 innings per start. Not surprisingly, the team went 9-16. The trend continued in July (5.20 ERA, 5.53 inning per start, 11-14 record) and though there was some improvement over the final two months it wasn’t enough to save the team’s season.
So the club’s No. 1 priority this winter - arguably more than re-signing Bryce Harper - is to acquire another frontline starter who can join Scherzer and Strasburg and create a formidable trio that leads the way in 2019.
Corbin, who went 11-7 with a 3.15 ERA, 246 strikeouts and a 1.050 WHIP this season for the Diamondbacks, is the most coveted starter on the free agent market. And the Nationals are right in the thick of the pursuit of his services.
Rizzo and managing principal owner Mark Lerner hosted Corbin in D.C. last week and took him out to dinner. They emerged feeling like they connected well with the 29-year-old left-hander, though they know they’re facing stiff competition in the Yankees and Phillies, who also hosted him last week.
“We had a nice discussion with him,” Rizzo said. “I had a personal discussion with him. He wanted to come down and see what we had down here and visit the city and the clubhouse. I thought that was a positive reaction by him. I’m not going to read too much into it. He’s a guy that obviously we’re interested in and would fit nicely on this team.”
Rizzo didn’t reveal what kind of offer (if any) the Nationals made, but Corbin is expected to command something in the range of $20 million per year over five or six years. If they land him, the Nats could end up with three starting pitchers boasting nine-figure contracts.
Is that the wisest course of action in today’s game? Well, despite what seems to be the trend away from dominant rotations, it’s worth noting the four best rotations in the majors (based on ERA) this season all reached the playoffs: the Astros, Dodgers, Indians and Braves.
The Nationals, who ranked 13th with a 4.03 rotation ERA that was the club’s worst in seven years, still believe in the power of great starting pitching.
“There’s different ways to do this. We’ve seen the bullpenning and that type of thing in playoff baseball, and that’s fine,” Rizzo said. “But for the marathon that is the season, you better have some starters that you can run out there and give you a chance to win each and every day. And that’s what we’ve always tried to do here.”