General manager Mike Rizzo, as has been noted here before, believes the single best path toward a championship is through a dominant rotation. No, you can’t win with great starters and nothing else. But he firmly believes no matter what other strengths your roster boasts, it won’t amount to anything without a top-notch rotation.
Hence the significance of this winter’s Patrick Corbin signing. Along with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, Corbin gives the Nationals three potentially dominant starters for 2019 and beyond, an enviable position for any club to be in.
That’s potentially dominant, though, not guaranteed dominant. Each of those three frontline pitchers has one possible stumbling block to overcome. Scherzer must prove he can maintain greatness into his mid-30s, something plenty of great starters around the sport have not been able to do. Strasburg must prove he can stay healthy enough to avoid long stints on the disabled list and the negative carryovers those often bring even when he’s back on the mound. And Corbin must prove his breakthrough 2018 was no fluke, that this was merely the first sign of what’s still to come from the lefty.
It’s not unfair to suggest that more than anything else, the fate of the 2019 Nationals will rest on the shoulders of those three starters. Because unless some other pitcher emerges from the pack - or unless another big-name starter is acquired along the way - there simply aren’t viable replacements for any of the big three.
The Nationals hope the Aníbal Sánchez signing pays dividends, and that the veteran right-hander can pick up where he left off last season in Atlanta and continue to refashion himself as an effective inducer of weak contact. But even at his best, Sánchez isn’t going to be mistaken for an elite starter. He’s a strong middle-of-the-rotation guy, but even then only if he stays healthy. (Remember: He has averaged only 24 starts each of the last six seasons.)
The No. 5 starter, for now, will be either Joe Ross or Erick Fedde. Either could develop into an elite starter, but both have extensive injury histories and lack a consistent track record. The organizational depth beyond them leaves much to be desired.
So unless Rizzo manages to snag another top-notch starter before opening day, the Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin trio is going to be the focus. And the goal for that trio absolutely should be a minimum of 30 starts apiece.
Not to be too simplistic about it, but the Nationals have pretty well established over the years the importance of having three workhorses. In eight of their 14 seasons in town, they’ve had at least three starting pitchers make at least 30 starts. That includes six consecutive seasons from 2012-17, during which time they won four division titles and averaged 92.5 wins.
The Nats saw only two pitchers make 30 starts last season: Scherzer and the since-traded Tanner Roark. Which lumps the 2018 club into a regrettable group of comparable teams from 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011. (As an aside, how the wretched 2008 team somehow got 30 starts apiece from John Lannan, Odalis Perez and Tim Redding is astonishing.)
Those six teams that featured fewer than three 30-start pitchers averaged only 72.2 wins. Yes, most of those clubs had some serious deficiencies beyond the rotation, but their starters didn’t exactly help the cause, either.
Baseball is seeing a dramatic shift in pitching philosophy, with many organizations de-emphasizing starters in favor of versatility and deep bullpens. The Nationals still believe the old-fashioned way works best.
It only works, though, if the high-paid horses atop a rotation actually post 30-plus times a year. That, more than anything else, is what the Nats need from Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin in 2019.