We continue today a periodic look at the state of the Nationals roster at the point spring training was suspended and project how things may look whenever baseball is played again. Up next is the starting rotation ...
The Nationals have one of the best rotations in baseball. That much we’ve known all along. But is it possible this group might prove even more valuable if given an opportunity to pitch in 2020?
There’s reason to believe so, if Major League Baseball’s current proposal for staging the season comes to fruition. And, of course, if everybody stays healthy.
It begins with the guys who anchor the rotation, perhaps the best 1-2-3 punch in the sport.
Yes, Max Scherzer was something of a question mark coming into spring training after his injury-plagued 2019 and abbreviated offseason. And after making his first three starts of the spring with no issues, he was scratched from his fourth with what he described as “an ailment” on his right side, though one he insisted was a byproduct of mechanical changes in the wake of last season’s injury and not an actual injury itself.
Whatever the case, Scherzer has now had two months to let that issue clear up. He’ll need to be watched closely as he starts to ramp things up in anticipation of “Spring Training 2.0,” but the extra time off should do him good. And with only half a season to prepare for, the 35-year-old might not have to hold anything back.
There’s no health question about Stephen Strasburg, and isn’t it a pleasure to able to say that? The World Series MVP looked strong in West Palm Beach, and the day before camps were shut down, he retired 12 Astros batters in a row and threw 36 of 46 pitches for strikes during a dominant performance.
“It’s starting to come together,” the right-hander said that afternoon, and who are we to dispute him?
Like Scherzer, Strasburg may well benefit from this unexpected layoff, giving his arm more time to recover from last fall. And if he’s only needed to make 16 or 17 starts during an abbreviated season, he simply needs to keep himself healthy and everything else should fall into place.
Patrick Corbin pitched a lot in 2019, just as his rotation mates did. And the lefty had the added workload of five October relief appearances, including three scoreless innings in Game 7 of the World Series. The Nationals eased Corbin into spring training just a bit, but he was on a regular rotation and made three starts before camp shut down, including four near-perfect innings against the Yankees on the final day of competition.
Of course, there are reasons to keep a close eye on him now. But keep in mind that Corbin hasn’t missed a start over the last three seasons. He has established himself as a reliable workhorse who also happens to be one of the most successful lefties in the sport.
The oldest member of the rotation wasn’t held back at all during the first portion of spring training. Aníbal Sánchez made all three scheduled starts and tossed four scoreless innings in his last outing before the shutdown. It sounds like a broken record, but this holds true for Sánchez just like his rotation mates: Two months off isn’t the worst thing in the world for a 36-year-old.
We tend to think of the Nationals’ pitching advantage coming from the top of the rotation. But in a shortened season, they might actually be better positioned than most teams because of the bottom of the rotation.
Camp opened with an open competition for the No. 5 starter’s job, and three candidates: Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde. As things wrapped up, Ross appeared to be in line to win the job, with Voth likely headed to the bullpen and Fedde optioned to Triple-A Fresno.
But with expanded rosters expected when the season begins, the Nationals could end up keeping all three in the big leagues. And if there are fewer off-days and scheduled doubleheaders, they could take advantage of their depth and send a qualified starter to the mound every day of the week.
The Nats are in an advantageous position with seven capable major league starters. Beyond that, it gets awfully thin. (Then again, how many teams go eight-deep in starting pitchers?) The next-best options are Kyle McGowin, owner of an 8.75 ERA in 12 career games (two starts), and Wil Crowe and Ben Braymer, who both had solid numbers at Double-A Harrisburg last season but saw those numbers balloon after getting promoted to Triple-A.