Nats' offseason plan must start with improved pitching

Since taking over as Nationals general manager in 2009, Mike Rizzo has believed in one path to success above all else: Elite pitching. And not just elite pitching, but elite starting pitching.

It was the hallmark of the franchise's eight-year run as a contender from 2012-19. Pick any year the Nats reached the postseason, and you'll find a rotation that ranked among the majors' best.

"Our mantra here has been that starting pitching is the most important thing, and pitchers have to go deep in games to give us a chance to win, to take the onus off the bullpen," Rizzo said Sunday. "I always think of it this way, right or wrong: Your starting pitchers are your best pitchers. Most relievers are failed starters that moved to the bullpen. So we're going to count on the pitchability, the talent and the expertise of our starting pitchers to get us the bulk of our innings each game.

"For (eight) years when we were a championship-caliber club, we had starting pitchers that led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts and wins, and that's how we built our championship-caliber clubs, and that formula's not changing."

That may be the preferred formula moving forward, but it sure wasn't a formula that came together well this season. Despite high hopes in spring training of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester leading the way, the Nationals rotation wound up with a 4.64 ERA, the group's worst mark since 2009 (when the team lost 103 games).

Even more alarming, Nats starters totaled only 827 2/3 innings, slightly more than five per game, and that's the lowest total (in a non-pandemic-shortened season) in club history.

The domino effect of that? A Nationals bullpen that looked solid on paper on opening day got worn down from overuse. And by season's end, a completely overhauled relief corps finished with a 5.08 ERA, tied with the Diamondbacks for worst in the National League.

It kept getting worse from month to month. After dealing away Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson at the trade deadline, the Nats bullpen went 5-22 (the fewest wins and most losses in the majors, with a 5.71 ERA (third-worst), 1.61 WHIP (worst), 5.08 walks per nine innings (worst), 1.64 homers per nine innings (second-worst), minus-1.7 WAR (worst) and 18 blown saves (most).

Oh, and the 42 losses charged to Nationals relievers for the season were the most in major league history.

"They pitched a lot, as we all know," manager Davey Martinez said. "They pitched a lot. And they battled. I'm proud of those guys. For the young guys, there were some growing pains. But I saw them get better."

That's up for debate, but what isn't is the need for the Nats pitching staff to be dramatically improved next season for the team to have any real hope of taking real steps forward in its rebuild. The question is: How do they go about doing that?

A major addition to the rotation would do wonders, of course, but are the Nationals in position to make such a big splash when they already owe Strasburg $175 million over the next five years and Corbin $82 million over the next three? Yes, Scherzer's big salary is now off the books, but is ownership ready to commit big bucks to another free agent after seeing its last couple nine-figure contracts blow up?

Thumbnail image for Ross-Delivers-White-Sidebar.jpgA less-expensive addition, the signing of a second-tier starter to a shorter-term deal, might be more plausible. But even in that scenario, the Nationals will go into 2022 hoping for (though not counting on) Strasburg and Joe Ross to return to full health and Corbin to return to something closer to his 2019 form than his 2020-21 form.

"I think it's a reasonable expectation that Strasburg and Patrick and Ross have to pitch more effectively, and more often, for us to quicken this reboot," Rizzo said. "But this thing is built on starting pitching, starting pitching depth, and that's what we're trying to obtain via free agency, the draft, trades and that type of thing, like we have in the past."

There are some appealing young options now to help fill out the rotation, with Josiah Gray at the top of the list, based off his 12 starts over the last two months, and Josh Rogers and Joan Adon potentially part of the mix based off a smaller sample of quality work late in the season. Cade Cavalli will get a chance to make the club out of spring training, as well, though the 2020 first-round pick still has some growing to do after struggling at Triple-A in September.

The bullpen, though, may need a more dramatic overhaul. Though pitchers including Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, Andres Machado, Mason Thompson, Patrick Murphy, Austin Voth and Ryne Harper all showed glimpses of potential, none showed the consistency needed to lock down games.

The offseason addition of one or two veteran late-inning relievers would probably do wonders, taking pressure off the less-experienced arms, helping turn some of those late-game disasters into actual wins and even in a worst-case scenario giving Rizzo some appealing trade chips come next July. (Will Harris, who still has one year left on his contract, will attempt to return from thoracic outlet surgery and help fortify the bullpen.)

"It's always part of the puzzle that you have to put together," Rizzo said, "and oftentimes it's the most difficult."

The challenge Rizzo faces this winter may be his most difficult yet.

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