Answering the questions raised by the Corbin signing

The Nationals’ signing of Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million deal came in fast and furious Tuesday afternoon, the kind of head-spinning transaction that was felt across baseball.

It also produced no shortage of follow-up questions. Now that we’ve had some time to digest the news, let’s see if we can come up with some answers to those questions ...

Did the Nationals really need to spend so much money for a No. 3 starter?
Yes. First of all, let’s not diminish Corbin by referring to him as a No. 3 starter. Perhaps in this rotation that’s what he’ll be. But he’s much better than that on his own merits. And truthfully, he might well deserve to be the Nats’ No. 2 behind Max Scherzer but ahead of Stephen Strasburg.

Corbin was one of the National League’s best pitchers this season, finishing fifth in Cy Young voting after going 11-7 with a 3.15 ERA, 246 strikeouts and a 1.050 WHIP. He was third in the league in strikeouts (behind only Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. He was second in Fielding Independent Pitching (behind only deGrom and ahead of Scherzer). He has a devastating slider that accounted for a whopping 79 percent of his strikeouts.

This is a very good pitcher. Does he have a lengthy track record? No. But he’s 29, he’s made 65 total starts over the last two seasons and the Nationals have every reason to believe he’s just now realizing his full potential.

Besides, we’ve been talking for more than a year that the Nats needed another frontline starter. Corbin is Gio Gonzalez’s replacement, and if you don’t think that qualifies as an upgrade, you haven’t been paying much attention.

OK, but isn’t it dangerous to give a six-year deal to a pitcher who has already had Tommy John surgery?
It’s a risk, no question. Corbin had his elbow ligament replaced in 2014, but that’s the only injury that has ever forced him to the disabled list. Once he returned midway through the 2015 season, he remained on the Diamondbacks’ active roster for the next 3 1/2 years.

So if there’s a post-Tommy John pitcher worth the risk, Corbin appears to be it.

Six-year contracts, of course, are risky for any pitcher, no matter his injury history. But the recent success rate on these kind of long-term deals has actually been better than you might have guessed.

The last 13 six-plus-year contracts for pitchers have gone to Scherzer, Strasburg, Zack Greinke, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Johnny Cueto and Yu Darvish. I’d argue 10 of those have turned out anywhere from decent to great, with only three of them (Strasburg, Cueto and Darvish) either bad or too soon to draw a conclusion.

Besides, the Nationals needed to bolster their rotation not only for 2019 but beyond. Scherzer is now in the second half of his deal, with three years left. Strasburg still have five years to go on his contract, but he has the ability to opt out after either the 2019 or 2020 season. The Nats needed some long-term stability, and there’s no one else currently in the organization who clearly meets that criteria right now.

Are the Nationals going to lose any draft picks from signing Corbin?
Yes. Because the Diamondbacks made him a qualifying offer last month, the Nats must forfeit their second- and fifth-highest picks in the 2019 draft. That means their second-round pick (56th overall) for sure. The other forfeited pick is still up in the air, because of Bryce Harper.

Because the Nats made a qualifying offer to Harper, they ensured they will receive compensation (a pick after the fourth round) if he signs with another club for at least $50 million. So if Harper does go elsewhere, that compensatory pick would actually be the Nationals’ fifth-highest pick and so they’d immediately lose it. If Harper returns to D.C., the Nats would lose their standard fifth-round pick.

The club also loses $1 million in international bonus pool money, though they already faced restrictions on how much they could spend on any one prospect before all this, so it doesn’t have much impact in that regard.

Harper-100th-RBI-Congrats-White-Sidebar.jpgFinally, the big question: Does this mean they can’t afford to re-sign Harper?
Honestly, I don’t believe it changes anything with regards to Harper. The Nationals saw a whole lot of money come off the books at the end of the season, and the moves they’ve made so far this winter really are just replacing those departing salaries.

Consider this: Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, Matt Wieters, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelley, Brandon Kintzler and Matt Adams made a combined $62 million this season. All are now free agents or already under contract with other clubs. The five players the Nationals have added so far this offseason (Corbin, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough) are set to make an estimated $43 million.

Yes, there are other returning players whose salaries are set to increase in 2019 (including Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Tanner Roark) but there should still be enough left for the Nats to acquire a backup first baseman (like Adams, Lucas Duda or Justin Bour), a lefty reliever and perhaps a short-term second baseman.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to re-sign Harper at this point and stay under the $206 million luxury tax threshold, but the sense all along has been that ownership would be willing to subject itself to the tax for a third consecutive year for the purposes of keeping Harper in D.C. The Lerners wouldn’t do that for any other free agent out there, but Harper is a unique case.

None of this is to suggest Harper is a good bet to return. Again, the sense here all along has been that he’s more likely to leave than stay. And with the Dodgers, Cubs, Phillies, Giants and maybe Cardinals and others showing interest, the 26-year-old star has no shortage of appealing options at his disposal.

But if Harper ends up somewhere else, it won’t be because the Nationals took money designated for him and spent it on Corbin. It’ll be because he decided another team’s offer made more sense to him than whatever the Nats’ final offer ends up being.

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