Revamped rotation will need to return to elite form this year

As spring training fast approaches, it's time to break down the state of the Nationals roster, position by position. The series begins today with the starting rotation ...

It's no secret how the Nationals have attempted to build a championship-caliber roster over the last seven seasons: with a dominant rotation leading the way. Trouble is, the 2018 version of that rotation didn't come close to holding up its end of the bargain and proved to be perhaps the No. 1 reason this team disappointingly won only 82 games.

Every season from 2012-17, Nationals starters ranked no worse than seventh in the majors in ERA. Their 2018 starters ranked 13th with a collective 4.03 ERA, up nearly a half-run from the previous year.

So as he looked for ways to improve his club over the winter, general manager Mike Rizzo made it a top priority to improve his rotation. He signed Patrick Corbin for $140 million, so far the largest contract given to any free agent this offseason, to give the team three bona fide elite starters. He traded Tanner Roark to the Reds and signed veteran Aníbal Sánchez to take over the fourth slot. And he continues to scour available arms in case a No. 5 starter better than the current in-house options emerges.

"Starting pitching is king," Rizzo said in December. "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."

On paper, this reconfigured rotation appears better than the previous version. But in order for that perception to prove accurate over the course of the season, several developments are necessary.

Max Scherzer is going to need to continue his remarkable run as one of the very best pitchers in baseball. That may sound like a lot to ask of a right-hander who turns 35 in July, but there's perhaps no pitcher in the sport more determined not only to sustain his previous success but find ways to get even better.

Scherzer did it last season during what he himself referred to as the best season of his career. This, mind you, from a guy who already owned three Cy Young Awards. But he achieved it by piling up a league-leading 220 2/3 innings and a league-best 0.911 WHIP while both raising his strikeout rate (12.2 per nine innings, resulting in a career-best 300 overall) and lowering his walk rate (only 2.1 per nine innings).

Ever seeking new ways to improve, Scherzer was particularly pleased with the way he threw his curveball and his cutter last year. And he intends to fine-tune each pitch more in 2019, perhaps trying to throw the cutter not only in on left-handed batters' hands but just on the outside corner to catch them napping.

Is it too much to expect Scherzer to contend for another Cy Young Award at 35? Maybe, but he's determined to keep doing it until his body no longer allows it.

Thumbnail image for Strasburg grey.jpgIt's not too much to expect Stephen Strasburg to rebound from a frustrating 2018 season and return to the peak form he displayed in 2017. As always, it comes down to injuries, and the shoulder and neck issues Strasburg dealt with last year not only limited him to 130 innings but also left him with diminished velocity after he returned healthy in September.

Strasburg was confident at season's end the velocity would return after a normal offseason, but all eyes will be on him when he takes the mound this spring and into April. Simply put, the Nationals need 175-plus innings from him (something he's done three times in his career) and they need him to be effective when he's out there.

There perhaps won't be quite as much pressure on Scherzer and Strasburg as there was the last few seasons, thanks to the acquisition of Corbin, who is capable of performing as well - or maybe even better - than either of his new rotation-mates.

An intriguing-but-erratic pitcher for the Diamondbacks since 2012, Corbin took his game to new heights last season, posting a 3.15 ERA, 1.050 WHIP and 246 strikeouts in 200 innings to finish fifth in Cy Young voting. And the 29-year-old picked a perfect time to do all this, just as he was about to hit free agency.

Needing a new No. 3 starter after trading Gio Gonzalez in August, Rizzo targeted Corbin and outbid the Phillies and Yankees for his services, making him the third member of the rotation (along with Scherzer and Strasburg) to get at least a six-year contract worth at least $140 million. Now the lefty merely needs to live up to the deal. Will he feel pressure to justify the money, or will he ease into the job because he's still third fiddle in this rotation?

Also seeking to duplicate his success from last season is Sánchez, the soon-to-be 35-year-old longtime Nats killer who, after a huge bounceback in Atlanta, was lured to a division rival. Rizzo is counting on Sánchez to be an upgrade over Roark, who was a stalwart and workhorse over the last five seasons but regressed in both 2017 and 2018.

The key: Can Sánchez continue his transformation into a pitcher who induces weak contact with a wide-ranging repertoire that now emphasizes his cutter and changeup instead of his four-seam fastball and sinker? The fact he'll be reunited with catcher Kurt Suzuki after they worked well together last season could help.

As things currently stand, the fifth and final spot in the opening rotation is up for grabs, with Joe Ross and Erick Fedde competing for the job this spring. That could change if Rizzo finds a more experienced alternative like Jeremy Hellickson, who signed in mid-March 2018 and wound up an effective arm for 19 starts.

There's legitimate hope of Ross taking a big step forward now that he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. He made only three starts in September, with mixed results. But he's healthy and he has a bit of a track record, having gone 12-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 32 starts in 2015-16. The Nats will have to monitor his innings, but they're hoping for quality out of the 25-year-old.

They're also looking for more consistency out of Fedde, who in 14 big league starts owns a 6.44 ERA and a penchant for wilting by the fifth inning. The former first-round pick was working on bulking up this winter, believing that would help with stamina and in turn allow him to become a more reliable starter going deeper into games. But he turns 26 later this month, and the clock is ticking for him to finally live up to his potential.

If there's a concern about this group as a whole, it's the lack of reliable depth. The Nationals simply haven't done a good enough job developing their own fill-in starters in recent years, and several of the prospects they have been high on (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, Jesus Luzardo, Jefry Rodriguez) have since been traded.

But this team needed 31 starts out of seven replacement pitchers last season: Ross, Fedde, Rodriguez, Tommy Milone, Austin Voth, A.J. Cole and Kyle McGowin. Collectively, they had a 6.07 ERA and 1.543 WHIP, with the Nationals as a team going 12-19 in games they started.

Voth and McGowin remain in the system, and 2017 draft pick Wil Crowe is a potential option at some point this season. The club also signed former Marlins right-hander Henderson Álvarez to a minor league deal and will give him a look this spring.

Given the high volume of free agents still out there in early February, don't be surprised if the Nationals add more names to the list in their search for pitching depth before opening day.

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