Nats rotation is stacked again, but does have question marks

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 ...

In each of the last five seasons, the Nationals have boasted one of baseball's best rotations. But it's notable that in the three seasons in which that rotation ranked among the top two in the sport, the Nationals proceeded to win a division title. In the two seasons in which the rotation dropped to seventh-best in the majors, the Nationals missed the playoffs altogether.

Now, with the 2017 season on the doorstep, there's little debate that the Nats again should have an excellent rotation. The question is whether the star-studded group will again rank right near the top of the list, and whether that will continue to figure significantly in the club's overall fortunes.

max-scherzer-pitching-20-strikeouts-sidebar.pngOn paper, this group does look formidable. Max Scherzer is the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, and at 32 shows no signs of slowing down. The ace right-hander has been on a run of complete dominance for four years now, leading all major league starters in wins (73), innings (891 2/3) and strikeouts (1,052), while ranking second in WHIP (1.007) and sixth in ERA (2.95).

Stephen Strasburg doesn't have Scherzer's pedigree quite yet, but for all his enigmatic qualities, the right-hander still owns a career 69-41 record, 3.17 ERA, 1.094 WHIP and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Strasburg's primary issue, of course, remains an inability to stay healthy. And that track record will hover over him this spring as he attempts to prove the elbow injury that prematurely ended his 2016 season was not as serious as it looked to everyone at the time and has no carryover effect into 2017.

The unheralded member of the group, Tanner Roark, still deserves to be in the conversation among the best starters in the sport. In 3 1/2 big league seasons, the 30-year-old has merely gone 42-28 with a 3.01 ERA and 1.146 WHIP. And those numbers would look even better if not for an erratic 2015 season in which he was shuttled in and out of the rotation through no fault of his own, hurting his performance.

The back end of the Nationals rotation doesn't boast the consistency of the front end, but it still outranks its counterparts with just about any other team in baseball. Gio Gonzalez, if nothing else, is as durable as they get. He has made at least 31 starts in six of the last seven seasons, something accomplished by only four other left-handers (Jon Lester, Madison Bumgarner, David Price and Cole Hamels). Because of that track record, the Nats were willing to pick up Gonzalez's $12 million option for 2017, even though he's coming off the least effective of his five seasons in D.C.

Joe Ross, meanwhile, has now pitched roughly the equivalent of one full season in the majors (32 starts, 181 2/3 innings). His totals: 12-10 with a 3.52 ERA, 162 strikeouts and 50 walks. Still only 23, the right-hander does need to prove his arm can hold up for the long haul after shoulder inflammation cost him 2 1/2 months last year.

The Nationals happily will go into this season with that quintet intact. But they'll be crossing their fingers from the get-go that all five stay healthy because their lack of quality depth behind those starters remains suspect.

With top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez traded to the White Sox for center fielder Adam Eaton, the Nationals do not currently boast a clear-cut No. 6 starter. They do have an assortment of options, though, some with experience and some with potential.

The club signed veteran right-hander Vance Worley to a minor league contract last weekend, and though he's not guaranteed a job, the former Oriole does appear to be the frontrunner to serve as a long reliever and emergency starter (filling the role Yusmeiro Petit held last season). The Nationals also signed right-hander Jacob Turner (who has made 53 career big league starts) to a minor league deal this winter and will give him an opportunity to make a case.

Giolito and Lopez may have garnered all the attention, but fellow rookie A.J. Cole actually outpitched both when given an opportunity late last summer. The lanky right-hander still needs to prove he can navigate his way through a lineup a second and third time, but he has stepped up in the last year and improved his standing on the organizational depth chart.

Also likely to be in the mix for a promotion should an opening arise this year is Austin Voth, a 24-year-old right-hander who sported a 3.15 ERA in 25 starts at Triple-A Syracuse and has since been added to the Nationals' 40-man roster.

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