Nationals rotation once again built to lead the way in 2018

As the start of spring training fast approaches, we're breaking down the state of the Nationals roster, position by position. The series begins today with the starting rotation ...

If asked to point to the one most significant reason for the Nationals' sustained, six-year run of success, the answer is simple: a dominant rotation. In every one of those six seasons, the Nationals have ranked no worse than seventh in the majors in starters' ERA. Three times, the unit has ranked first or second in the majors.

General manager Mike Rizzo has built this franchise on the backs (and shoulders) of his starting pitchers, with at least two and sometimes as many as four elite starters in any given season. And there's every reason to believe that trend will continue in 2018, even though one of the five opening day jobs (for now) is up for grabs entering spring training.

It all begins with Max Scherzer, who somehow keeps finding ways to get even better. The right-hander's debut season in D.C. included two no-hitters and a 2.79 ERA. He returned the following year and won 20 games with 284 strikeouts and a Cy Young Award. And then he returned last season and posted career bests in ERA (2.51) and WHIP (0.902) while winning his third career Cy Young, which now puts him on a track that ends in Cooperstown.

Does Scherzer have something even greater in store for 2018? He insists he's always trying to get better, and who are we to doubt him at this point? But it does have to be noted that he dealt with several nagging injuries last season (neck, hamstring, knee), and as he enters his mid-30s, it's only going to get harder to keep his body from breaking down.

Strasburg-Gray-NLDS-Sidebar.jpgStephen Strasburg is four years younger than his fellow rotation ace, and if the second half of last season was a sign of things to come, the right-hander might just be entering the prime of what already has been a very good career. The bar for Strasburg has been set exceedingly high ever since his 14-strikeout debut in 2010, but he elevated his performance to a new level late season, going 6-1 with an 0.86 ERA after the All-Star break. He then carried that over into the postseason with two dominant starts against the Cubs, including a must-win Game 4 at Wrigley Field while battling an illness.

Was that a turning point for Strasburg, who has seemingly been held back by various physical ailments and the perception he can't gut it out when he's not 100 percent? He did everything he could in September and October to change that narrative, and if he comes out gangbusters in April, he might just completely shed that reputation for good and truly establish himself as one of the best pitchers in the game.

There wasn't a better No. 3 starter in baseball last season than Gio Gonzalez. After seeing his numbers regress over the previous four years, he bounced back in a big way to post a 2.96 ERA and 1.179 WHIP while topping the 200-inning mark for the first time in a Nationals uniform. The biggest key to the lefty's success was a newfound ability to pitch out of jams; opponents produced a meager .518 OPS against him with runners in scoring position, the fourth-best mark in the majors.

The season ended in disappointment for Gonzalez, who once again struggled in a critical postseason start. And that will leave some doubts in people's minds heading into what almost certainly will be his final season in Washington, with the club unlikely to re-sign him as a free agent next winter.

There will be plenty of motivation for Tanner Roark entering 2018, both because of his disappointing 2017 regular season and complete lack of use in the five-game postseason. Roark has always seemed to be at his best when he's pitching with a chip on his shoulder, and he'll certainly have that after watching his ERA skyrocket to 4.67 and his WHIP to 1.335. Perhaps the absence of a World Baseball Classic this spring will help the 31-year-old prepare on a more normal schedule and hit the ground running come April.

The Nationals haven't reported for spring training without five set-in-stone starters since way back in 2012, when John Lannan, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang all competed for one spot. (Detwiler wound up getting the nod after Wang was injured two weeks before opening day, with a disgruntled Lannan optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.) It will surprise many if they find themselves in such a position this spring - and there's still a chance of a signing or trade before then - but for now that's where things stand.

The two primary competitors for that fifth slot are A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde, a pair of young right-handers who have showed promise but have yet to put it all together. Cole has bounced back and forth from Syracuse the last two seasons and has been used almost exclusively as a fill-in starter when somebody else was hurt. But he did make some strides when finally given a chance to pitch on a regular basis late in 2017, with a 2.70 ERA over his last seven outings (four starts). The fact the 26-year-old is out of minor league options probably gives him an edge entering camp; if nothing else, there's a good chance he'd at least make the club as a long reliever.

Fedde remains the organization's top pitching prospect, but he's coming off an underwhelming season in which he spent some time as a reliever in the minors and then looked unprepared when he reached the majors as a starter. Fedde made only three big league starts, so it's not entirely fair to judge him off that limited sample, but his season was halted early due to a tired arm that left his velocity down several notches. There will be plenty of eyes on him this spring when he takes the mound.

If both young right-handers falter, the Nationals may have no choice but to turn to one of two veterans they signed to minor league contracts this winter. Edwin Jackson is a familiar face around here, having pitched for the Nationals the entire 2012 season and then the second half of the 2017 season. We know what the 34-year-old is at this point, and he's not about to change. But he eats up innings, takes the ball every fifth day and every once in a while puts together a really solid start. Tommy Milone, meanwhile, returns to the organization that drafted him way back in 2008 and then included him in the blockbuster 2011 trade for Gonzalez. The lefty has bounced around since, but if he's willing to report to Syracuse to open the season, there's a decent chance he'll be called upon at some point.

The Nationals also are hopeful of having Joe Ross back in midsummer, once he has completed his rehab from Tommy John surgery. A typical timetable would have the right-hander back sometime in July, but the club won't have a clearer idea of that until they start to see him throw off a mound this spring.

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