Nats will again go as far as star-studded rotation takes them

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 ...

What was the biggest difference between the 2018 Nationals, who disappointed and failed to reach the postseason, and the 2019 Nationals, who not only reached October but were the last team standing at the end of the month? Starting pitching.

Yes, the offensive heroics of Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Howie Kendrick and company were integral to the World Series title, but over the course of the entire year, the Nats put themselves in position to take advantage of those clutch hits thanks to their dominant rotation.

It’s been the backbone of this organization for nearly a decade now, but we forget how much of a problem it was in 2018. Nationals starters that season owned a collective 4.03 ERA, ranking a mere 13th in the majors. The reasons for the drop-off from previous seasons: Stephen Strasburg’s injury, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark’s inconsistent performances, and a lack of quality depth.

So general manager Mike Rizzo went out and made two key acquisitions last winter. He signed Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, then added veteran Aníbal Sánchez on a two-year, $19 million deal. Both wound up as major contributors.

Corbin-Delivers-Blue-Front-WS-G4-Sidebar.jpgSome questioned whether Corbin was worth that much money, given his lack of track record in Arizona. But the left-hander confirmed Rizzo’s suspicion that his final season with the Diamondbacks was merely the launching point for the peak of his career.

Turns out Corbin is remarkably consistent. In 2018, he went 11-7 with a 3.15 ERA and 246 strikeouts in 200 innings over 33 starts. In 2019, he went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 202 innings over 33 starts.

It also turns out Sánchez’s bounceback 2018 in Atlanta was no fluke. It just took a little time for him to prove it. The veteran right-hander opened his first season in D.C. with an 0-6 record, 5.27 ERA and 1.683 WHIP, then landed on the injured list with a mild hamstring strain. He quickly returned - and quickly turned his entire season around. Over his final 21 starts, Sánchez went 11-2 with a 3.42 ERA and 1.132 WHIP.

Corbin and Sánchez may have been the best 3-4 pitching combo in the majors, but it wouldn’t have mattered much if the Nationals didn’t also have one of the best 1-2 combos on their side.

After having so many moments of potential greatness derailed by physical ailments, Strasburg finally put it all together last season and proved he really is the pitcher the Nationals expected him to be all those years ago. He led the league in wins (18) and innings pitched (209). He allowed barely more than one batter to reach base per inning.

Then he took it a step further and put together one of the best postseason runs in major league history, going 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA, 47 strikeouts and only four walks in October.

The Nationals needed it, because Max Scherzer - despite a dominant first half that rivaled any three-month stretch of his vaunted career - had to deal with significant injuries for the first time in that vaunted career. A shaky September (5.16 ERA in five starts) sent the three-time Cy Young Award winner into the postseason as a legitimate question mark, but then he rediscovered himself just in time to lead the way again.

Like Strasburg, Scherzer was undefeated in October (3-0) and contributed not only as a starter but as a surprise reliever as well. And though he gave everyone a scare when he had to be scratched hours before Game 5 of the World Series due to neck spasms, Scherzer was able to take the ball three nights later and pitch five effective innings in a do-or-die game.

Previous versions of the Nationals might have suffered from Scherzer’s missed time in late summer, but this team had multiple viable fill-in starters who helped offset the loss of the ace. In 19 combined starts after the All-Star break, Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde went 9-3 with a 3.35 ERA, seizing the opportunity and making Scherzer’s injury far less damaging to the club.

Now all three of those young right-handers will compete for the one open spot in this year’s rotation, with one of the runners up probably in line for a spot in the bullpen. Ross (who got the nod in Game 5 of the World Series when Scherzer couldn’t post up) seems like the early favorite, with Voth next in line. Fedde (the only one of the three who has one remaining minor league option) is probably going to have to make a major statement this spring to avoid opening the year in either Triple-A Fresno or Double-A Harrisburg.

All of this leaves the Nats with a rotation that figures to be among the sport’s best once again in 2020. Last year’s group re-established itself after the disappointing 2018, finishing second in the majors in ERA and strikeouts, fourth in WHIP and opponent OPS.

This year’s group will have a chance to duplicate those rankings, provided nobody is still suffering negative effects of all the extra work from October.

It’s always tricky for championship teams to strike the right balance between giving pitchers more time to recover and making sure they’re ready to go for the regular season. The Nationals insist it won’t be a problem for them, that their starters are healthy and ready to pick up where they left off only a few months ago.

“There’s no reason for concern,” Rizzo said last month. “The exit physicals were great, everyone came through physically fine. We’re going to prepare for spring training in 2020 the way we have since 2009 when I took over. We’re going to be full-go and ready to go on opening day. We’re not going to do anything tricky or special to prepare ourselves just because we pitched and played an extra month.”

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