What are we to make of the Nationals rotation as the season’s first month comes to a close? There’s ample reason for serious concern, yet there’s also not-so-insignificant reason to be encouraged.
The bad: Nationals starters currently own a 5.18 ERA, which ranks 28th out of 30 major league clubs. Their 1.323 WHIP is slightly better but still ranks a mere 22nd. Four times this season their starter has been charged with six or more earned runs, tied for the most in the major leagues.
The good: Eight times already this season a Nationals starter has gone six or more innings while allowing zero or one earned run, and each of the five of their regular rotation members has done it at least once. Even more impressive, four of those starters (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Joe Ross) have gone at least six scoreless innings at least once.
The takeaway: Everyone in this rotation has been inconsistent to some extent. Scherzer has been the best of the group by far, but even the three-time Cy Young Award winner had one blowup earlier this week against the Blue Jays.
But if you’re looking for reason to be optimistic in the long-term, it’s right there in front of your eyes. Though they haven’t performed up to their full capabilities yet, the Nats rotation continues to have as much potential as any rotation in baseball. Even with Strasburg on the injured list.
That’s because the two starters who have performed the best after Scherzer are Ross and Erick Fedde.
Ross, who technically won the No. 5 starter’s competition during spring training, opened his season with 12 consecutive scoreless innings. And while he endured through his own meltdown, getting ransacked by the Cardinals for 10 runs, he bounced right back with his third outstanding start last weekend against the Mets.
Fedde, who was ticketed for the bullpen before the team’s pre-opening-day COVID-19 outbreak, labored through his 1 2/3-inning blowup in his season debut, but in four starts since has posted a 2.61 ERA and 0.968 WHIP.
“They’ve both done really well,” manager Davey Martinez said during a recent Zoom session with reporters. “That’s awesome for us. We talked about this before: They were going to get opportunities. ... We’re going to need both these guys.”
The Nationals also will need Strasburg to return healthy and effective once he gets over his shoulder inflammation. And they’re going to need Corbin to be far better than the 0-3, 10.47 ERA start they’ve gotten from the lefty so far.
But the emergence of Ross and Fedde has helped soften the blow somewhat. And another pending return from the IL could help as well: Jon Lester.
Lester, who was held up early in spring training due to parathyroid surgery in his neck and then wound up on the COVID-19 IL to open the season, appears finally to be ready to make his 2021 debut, perhaps as soon as tonight against the Marlins.
The Nats can’t say with certainty they know what they’re going to get from the 37-year-old, but Lester has already thrown six innings and 90 pitches in his third rehab start at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg. And his track record of durability and success in big games makes him a welcome addition to a rotation that can use the help.
There’s even a pie-in-the-sky scenario that could play out in perhaps a few weeks. If all of the current starters are pitching well, and if Lester performs as hoped as well, what will the Nationals do when Strasburg is ready to come off the IL?
It’s hard to believe they’d send an effective Fedde to the bullpen, and they can’t send him (or Ross) to Triple-A without first exposing him to waivers because he’s out of minor league options. Corbin perhaps would end up the odd man out and need to work out his kinks in the bullpen or on a rehab assignment if it’s determined he’s not healthy.
As is usually the case with such conundrums, this will probably take care of itself without outside influence. But it does serve as a reminder the Nationals may not be facing as dire a rotation situation as it has sometimes seemed they might in recent weeks.
That, of course, is the optimistic view. The pessimistic view would point out Ross and Fedde are due to regress, Corbin is a real problem and Strasburg may never be fully healthy this season.
But with the season not even 13 percent completed, and with enough glimmers of positive developments playing out before our eyes, why not try the optimistic view for now? There will be ample time to flip-flop later if needed.