Strasburg's return to full health crucial to formulating 2021 rotation

Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg has recovered well from right hand surgery and is expected to be at full health when spring training begins, hopefully in mid-February 2021. Strasburg pitched in only two games in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, severely hampering a rotation that has been the strength of the Nats success for many seasons.

"He was just re-examined on Dec. 4," general manager Mike Rizzo during today's Zoom video call with reporters. "He's coming along great. He should be full-go for spring training. He began his throwing program a couple of weeks ago and he is progressing nicely."

With Strasburg returning to full health, manager Davey Martinez is excited to have the strength of his pitching, the top three arms in the rotation, together again. Finishing out of the running for a postseason berth a year after winning it all was certainly an uncomfortable transition for the Nats. But maybe the extra time off - and complete rehab from the hand injury - will help Strasburg begin the 2021 season at a stronger level.

Strasburg-Throws-Gold-Sidebar.jpg"It's unfortunate that Strasburg got hurt," Martinez said during a Zoom call with reporters this afternoon. "I won't say I'm glad that he was hurt, but we got an issue taken care of, and he'll come back fully healthy and ready to go as well."

The skipper was not thrilled with the 26-34 regular season record, but was encouraged that his other two big starters, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, looked like they were just hitting their stride as September ended.

"What I looked at is how they finished," Martinez said. "I kind of forgot about how the season started because we had that abbreviated spring training. But I want to see how they finish it, one guy in particular (was) Max. Max finished strong. He looked good. I talked to Max and he said he really started at the end getting in that groove where he felt like things were going to take off, same thing with Pat Corbin. I talked to him and he said (after) the last couple of outings, ... 'Man, this is the best I felt.' And all of a sudden, the season is over. We're done.

"With that being said, I told Max, 'Hey, lesson learned. Build off of that. Get yourself strong again. Get ready to go and play the 162 games and you get your 30 something starts and we go from there.' "

The 2020 season did not start off well for Scherzer at all, but Rizzo believed the veteran got into a better groove just as the season was ending. In 12 starts, Scherzer finished 5-4 with a 3.74 ERA.

"I think his stuff is as good as it's ever been," Rizzo said. "It's different than it was when we first signed him. It's way different than when I drafted him in 2006. He's a guy that is a chameleon. He changes as his career moves on. He's always coming up with a way to beat you. He is such a competitive person. The velocity was where I wanted it to be with his fastball for the most part last year, and his slider/curveball/cutter and changeup were all good pitches. I think it was a matter of consistency and routine for him while he struggled a little bit. The bar is so high with Max that anything but excellence is regarded as a failure."

In such a frustrating season, Rizzo got the chance to appreciate how Scherzer handled the medical protocols before and after games and how the right-hander commanded the clubhouse and kept teammates looking forward.

"He grinded through a season last year," Rizzo said. "He was a leader on that team. As far as last year, I think he led more than he ever has. He was the voice of the team with the COVID protocols and other things. I think he ages very, very well. His delivery works for him. He is such a workaholic type of preparer that I see him being successful for years to come."

One question that might bubble to the surface this upcoming campaign is Scherzer's contract status with the Nats. The 2021 season marks the final year of the seven-year, $191.4 million deal he signed with the club in 2015.

Is Rizzo in active contract talks with Scherzer to extend that deal?

"We haven't had any substantive conversations about an extension for Max to my knowledge," Rizzo said. "Now that could be on the ownership level. To my knowledge, it hasn't happened yet. When we get to spring training, when we get to see each other each and every day, that sometimes changes. We will keep all our options open. Max is a Hall of Fame pitcher that's earned that respect."

So with the big three starters set, the focus this offseason for the Nats is who will replace veteran Aníbal Sánchez as the No. 4 starter, and which hurler becomes the fifth starter.

Martinez envisions Joe Ross returning to a starter's role after opting out of the 2020 campaign.

"You got (Austin) Voth, you got Joe, you got (Erick) Fedde (and) a couple of other young guys we are going to bring to camp," Martinez said. "I want Joe to be in the rotation. I know he is doing well. He feels great. He can't wait to get back on the mound and get to spring training. It's wide open for him. I missed him last year. We could have used him last year. But for me, he did what he felt was right and I back him on that. I am glad he is going to be back with us and he's got every opportunity in the world to be (with us), whether it's the fifth starter, whether it's the fourth starter. Who knows? He's going to get every opportunity to do that."

Rizzo hinted that the Nats will set their sights on a veteran at the No. 4 spot, similar to what Sánchez provided for two seasons. As soon as the club is able to find and sign that middle-of-the-order power bat, the No. 4 starter is next on the to-do list.

"It's all about asset allocation," Rizzo said. "I think that the moves we do early will dictate that rotation move. I have confidence in that depth that we have built as far as backend starters. With kind of an addition of Joe Ross this year, and Voth and Fedde and the young kids we had seen in Fredericksburg all season and then instructional league, (it) was extremely exciting to see those guys pitch. We have seen several guys there that are going to help us this year in the big leagues that maybe aren't household names by the prospect experts. We saw a handful of guys that are close to impacting the big league roster soon."

The bottom line is Martinez has the confidence that Rizzo will do his job in finding a solid No. 4 starter and that the Nats current back-of-the-rotation depth will be able to carry its weight as well.

"With those three guys up at the top there and Joe, Fedde, Voth - and who knows who we may end up getting somewhere down the line - I think we have a really good opportunity to repeat what we did in 2019," Martinez said.

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