SAN DIEGO - With Stephen Strasburg officially back for the long term, the Nationals know they’ll enter the 2020 season with the same starting quartet that was instrumental in their World Series victory. Strasburg rejoins Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez as a formidable foursome that will again serve as the backbone of this roster.
What about the final spot in the rotation? That’s very much up for grabs at the moment, and it appears it will remain that way heading into spring training, with the club considering three young right-handers who each showed flashes of success this season: Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde.
“I think we have a very good confidence with our starting rotation,” general manager Mike Rizzo said today in his final scheduled media session of these Winter Meetings. “We think we go deep. We’ve got seven or eight deep in the rotation, which we like. And a couple of them have options, which is important.”
Actually, only one of those three starting candidates still has an option: Fedde, who it was recently discovered is a rare player with a fourth option year. Most players can only be sent up and down to the minors in three separate seasons, but a few are granted a fourth season of eligibility due to injuries or a lack of professional service time. Both Fedde and catcher Raudy Read fit that description.
What does that mean? It means both Ross and Voth must make the opening day roster or else be exposed to other clubs via waivers. Which means one of the two almost certainly figures to be the No. 5 starter to begin the season, with the other perhaps pitching out of the bullpen. The addition of a 26th man on the active roster helps open a slot for someone like that.
It also would suggest the Nationals aren’t going to be in the market for another starting pitcher, barring an injury or trade of one of the aforementioned names.
“I think we’re more than satisfied with our rotation,” Rizzo said. “And with the other holes we have to fill, I think that’s less of a priority.”
The bullpen is more of a priority for Rizzo and company right now, with multiple slots that need to be filled. At the moment, the Nationals know they’ve got Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elías under contract. The club re-signed veteran Javy Guerra to a minor league deal and signed career minor leaguer Kyle Finnegan to a big league contract earlier this week, but they know they need another sure thing (or preferably two).
Rizzo said he has been in touch with Daniel Hudson’s agent, beginning the process of attempting to re-sign the veteran who recorded the final out in Game 7 of the World Series. But a reunion with Hudson is far from a sure thing. The right-hander, who turns 33 in March, is seeking a multi-year deal according to a source familiar with his thinking. And the Nationals could be skeptical about guaranteeing multiple years to a reliever who despite a 2.47 ERA in 69 games with them and the Blue Jays this season owned a 4.49 ERA the previous five seasons with the Diamondbacks, Pirates and Dodgers.
Do the Nats evaluate Hudson based on what they saw in 2019 or what they saw prior to that?
“I think we look at the way we scouted him prior to the trade deadline and what we saw once he was with us,” Rizzo said. “I think it gives us more than a snapshot. I think it gives us a longer view with a wider lens of what he will project out to be in the future.”
If the Nationals elect not to re-sign Hudson, other experienced late-inning relievers on the free agent market include Dellin Betances, Steve Cishek and Will Harris.
Rizzo also has high hopes for the two other relievers he acquired at the July 31 deadline besides Hudson. Neither Strickland nor Elías performed well after their trades, but Rizzo believes there were some extenuating circumstances in each case.
Strickland missed most of the first half of the season with a strained lat muscle, and though he was healthy, he was thrust right into a pennant race without easing his way back into big league action.
“He was kind of chasing it from the start with us,” Rizzo said. “And I think that he’s an ultra-competitor, and I think he was ultra-amped up. I just think he has to be healthy. I think a fresh start with our program, starting from Day One with us, will really help him. We’ve seen flashes of really good stuff with this guy. ... We just have to tweak some of the delivery and some of the mechanics, and I think we’ll have ourselves a really reliable reliever.”
Elías was healthy when he was acquired, but immediately strained his hamstring running the bases in his Nationals debut. He returned briefly, but hurt himself again, leaving club officials with little evidence of his abilities. Rizzo does know the lefty will need to fix the “reverse splits” that plagued him earlier in 2019 with the Mariners if he’s going to be trusted to get left-handed hitters out next season.
“I think his splits will improve, just because his career splits are much better than his splits were last year,” the GM said. “His stuff’s good. We didn’t see him pitch much for us, but we’ve seen him in the past. And prior to the trade deadline, he was closing out games for Seattle. His stuff is good. ... Again, he never really hit the ground running with us, because of injuries. But we think he’ll be a reliable guy for us in the future.”