For the better part of a decade, the Nationals built a consistent contender around one critical part of their roster more than any other: the rotation.
From 2012-19, the Nats rotation produced a 3.56 ERA. Only the Dodgers (3.32) were better across the majors during that extended span. Only once during those eight years did the rotation's ERA exceed 4.00 or rank worse than seventh in the big leagues (2018, when it checked in at 4.03).
That's what made the last two seasons so jarring for anyone who had watched this organization succeed for so long. During the shortened 2020 campaign, Nationals starters saw their collective ERA skyrocket to 5.38, 27th out of 30 big league clubs. And even with Max Scherzer leading the way until late July, the 2021 rotation finished with a 4.64 ERA that ranked 20th.
So as general manager Mike Rizzo seeks to rebuild his organization after last summer's teardown, what he really needs to rebuild more than anything is his rotation.
"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 on the season's final day. "For 11 years when we were a championship-caliber club, we had starting pitchers that led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts and wins. That's how we built our championship-caliber clubs, and that formula's not changing."
The formula may not be changing, but the personnel sure is. Even in a best-case scenario, the Nationals will enter this season with a rotation that bears little resemblance to its old self.
That best-case scenario does, however, include two stalwarts from the past: Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Whether those two can still lead the way depends on their ability to stay healthy and adapt to become effective as different pitchers in their mid-30s.
Strasburg has endured through back-to-back nightmare seasons following his glorious run to World Series MVP honors. A steady stream of injuries limited the right-hander to seven total starts over the last two seasons, few of them quality outings. Now the 33-year-old attempts to come back from thoracic outlet surgery, a major procedure with a far less-established track record for recovery than the Tommy John surgery he famously had as a rookie in 2010.
A healthy and effective Strasburg would do wonders for the stability of the Nationals rotation. So would the return of Corbin, 31, to his old form after back-to-back substandard seasons.
Among the 49 big leaguers who pitched at least 200 combined innings in 2020-21, Corbin ranks 48th in ERA (5.50), 49th in WHIP (1.496) and 48th in home runs allowed (47). The good news: Health wasn't an issue. The bad news: Health wasn't an issue.
The Nats have no choice but to give Strasburg and Corbin all the time they need to try to get right, given their massive contracts. But club officials know they can't simply count on one or both returning to form, which is why they're equally determined to develop more young starters who eventually could take over as the leaders of the staff.
Atop that list among those who are likely to be part of the opening day rotation is Josiah Gray, the 24-year-old right-hander acquired from the Dodgers who showed some flashes of excellence in August and September but also showed he still has a ways to go before he's considered an established big leaguer.
In eight of his 12 starts, Gray allowed three or fewer runs, totaling at least five innings each time. In his other four starts, he allowed five or more runs, twice failing to reach the fifth inning. There was a lot to like, but his progress will now be measured in terms of consistency.
The organization's top-ranked pitching prospects all are ticketed for D.C. sometime in the next year or two, but none figure to be taking the mound at Nationals Park until late 2022 at best. Still, plenty of eyes will be on Cade Cavalli (likely to open at Triple-A Rochester), Cole Henry (likely to open at Double-A Harrisburg) and Jackson Rutledge (likely to open at Single-A Wilmington) as each attempts to work his way up to a major league debut.
In the meantime, the Nats will round out their 2022 rotation with a combination of semi-experienced pitchers, some of them long familiar to local fans, others still making their names known around here.
Like Strasburg, Joe Ross will be attempting to return from injury. Unlike Strasburg, Ross will come to spring training without having needed surgery. Yet. The 28-year-old right-hander was shut down in August with a partial tear of his elbow ligament. Doctors determined he didn't need the second Tommy John surgery of his career at that point, saying he could attempt rest and rehab and see how he feels come spring. Maybe Ross' arm is able to hold up, but until he's throwing off a mound every five days without issues, he'll remain a big question mark.
Erick Fedde has spent several years battling Ross (and Austin Voth, now a full-time reliever) for a spot in the Nationals rotation. The 2014 first-round pick, who turns 29 next month, was tendered a contract earlier this winter, so he remains in the mix, though he's hardly assured of anything at this point and will need to earn a job in spring training or risk being let go since he's out of options.
A couple of pleasant surprises from 2021 also will be in the mix for rotation spots: Josh Rogers and Paolo Espino. Rogers, dumped by the Orioles and signed to a minor league contract, got a chance to pitch in September and made the most of it, with a 3.28 ERA in six starts. Espino, a career minor leaguer, was an emergency call-up after Strasburg was scratched from a start in mid-April and never went back down, maintaining an ERA in the low-3.00s until a couple of late-season blowups.
Three other starters are currently on the Nationals' 40-man roster. Joan Adon impressed in his Game 162 big league debut, striking out nine Red Sox over 5 1/3 innings. Gerardo Carrillo, another pitcher acquired from the Dodgers, has a live arm but needs more seasoning after an erratic season at Double-A. And Seth Romero, the 2017 first-round pick, has perhaps one more shot to make it after years of injuries and other maladies.