Flashback to the GM Meetings in November in Boca Raton, Florida and Mike Rizzo was asked about the starting rotation for the 2016 season and Riz said, “I’m happy sliding Tanner and Joe in the rotation. With that said, you can never have enough good starting pitching.” Fast forward over 3 months, and the Nats have not publicly changed the 5 probable starters; however, Rizzo added Bronson Arroyo as he was signed on January 26, 2016 to a Minor League deal with an opt-out prior to final rosters being set.
The biggest “add” this off-season could be Mike Maddux. The pitching coach has already tweaked some of the most minute mechanics on almost every pitcher in camp. Early on he saw a wrist hitch with Treinen on his changeup and changed his grip. With Gio it was turning his head to eye his target, with Gott it was keeping his head steady, and with Cole it was the arm angle. With all the Nats pitchers, Maddux talks about “pitching with a purpose” and “don’t waste pitches you don’t have” and “it must look like a strike”. Maybe these players have heard it before from another pitching coach or maybe Maddux just has that je ne sais quoi that keeps these pitchers focused on the target.
If we take Rizzo’s suggestion on sliding Tanner Roark and Joe Ross into the rotation, this is what the starters will look like:
But let’s not forget the 39 year old Bronson Arroyo who is in Viera because of Dusty Baker, and Arroyo was told he would get a fair shot at making this team. Arroyo has not pitched since June 15, 2014 when he earned the 145th win in his career as he felt pain in his elbow and secretly knew he tore his UCL and pitched through the pain for several starts to where he couldn’t straighten his arm any more and then had tests confirming he needed the Tommy John surgery.
To put Arroyo’s age in perspective, when Arroyo was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1995 amateur draft, his teammate Lucas Giolito was 11 months old and still in diapers.
Just to further put Arroyo’s career into perspective, David Ortiz and Arroyo are the only remaining active players from the Red Sox 2004 World Championship team. Arroyo is not ready to retire, and Baker believes he has more in the tank.
Baker had this to say, “Bronson knows how to pitch, and he knows how to lead. He knows when to say something and when to be quiet. I don’t know where he’s going to fit on this club, but I’m hoping that he’s well enough to fit somewhere. He can add something.”
What does Arroyo think of being given a great opportunity with a contender? He is motivated by the opportunity in front of him, and has enough baseball education to know that he is not a lock.
Arroyo spoke candidly, “It’s a challenge, man. I’m not in pain. I’m proud of what I’ve done in this game. If I don’t make it out of this [Nationals] camp and this arm just won’t go, I’m completely satisfied with what I’ve done in the game. If I go out in spring training [games], and I’m throwing 84, 85, and I’m getting my butt kicked a little bit, I need someone who can look between the lines and say: ‘Yeah, but you know what? He’s good enough, and I know what we’re going to get for the season,’ versus somebody who’s never seen me throw before and be like, ‘Oh, man, this guy’s washed up.’ ”
The competition at this point is reasonably between Joe Ross, Tanner Roark, and Bronson Arroyo although others like AJ Cole and Taylor Jordan will get opportunities to impress management as well as others who are in Viera. Also, at some point in 2016, Lucas Giolito will be part of the mix to find a spot in the 2016 rotation which could mean that even if Arroyo makes the Opening Day roster, he could find himself a short-timer.
To further complicate issues, Joe Ross should be near a 180 innings limit and Lucas Giolito near a 140 innings limit. This will all factor into the 2016 ‘plan’.
Let’s review the other potential starters, and their outlook for 2016.
Stephen Strasburg was one of the best starters in baseball in the 2nd half posting up a 1.90 ERA in 10 starts. Strasburg was one of the worst starters in baseball in the 1st half suffering from neck and back pain that landed him on the DL. The 2nd half Strasburg was the star of the staff. Strasburg had off-season surgery to remove a growth from his back, and that seems like ages ago.
Tanner Roark was the model of inconsistency in 2015 after coming off of a breakout 2014 season with 31 starts and a 2.85 ERA, Roark was put in the bullpen to begin the 2015 season as the odd man out after the Nats acquired Max Scherzer. Roark finished the 2015 season with a 4.82 ERA as a starter. Roark enters Spring Training with a lot to prove, and at this point is “in” the rotation for 2016.
Joe Ross was acquired in the three-team Souza trade along with Trea Turner and seemed to be the extra filler to complete the deal as he had come off of a poor 2014 MiLB season between High-A and AA in the Padres system with a 3.92 ERA. Ross impressed the scouts in his starts in AA and earned a call-up mid-season and hit his innings limit and was sent to the bullpen. Ross showed a wicked slider and a well controlled fastball. Once Joe Cool can perfect his changeup he will continue to advance. His poise on the mound was impressive. In 10 of Joe’s 13 starts, he gave up 3 runs or less. In 4 of the 13 starts, he only gave up 1 run or less.
Max Scherzer was one of the best starters in baseball in 2015, finishing the season with 2 no-hitters and a 1 hitter and earning a 5th place finish in the Cy Young voting. Scherzer was the workhorse of the staff but stumbled heading into the 2nd half. Prior to signing as a Free Agent with the Nats last off-season, Scherzer had never thrown a complete game in his career; Scherzer threw a league high 4 complete games in 2015 and finished the season with 228 2/3 innings pitched. His 1st half ERA was 2.11 and his 2nd half ERA was 3.72 and he finished his 2015 season with a no-hitter. Scherzer will once again work on that cutter to use against lefties and admitted, “It takes time to add and perfect a new pitch.”
Gio Gonzalez had an inconsistent 2015 season, and once again called into question on his pitching days as to which Gio would show up. The “good” Gio showed up 19 times in 2015 and the “bad” Gio unfortunately showed up 10 times. In 8 of Gio’s starts, he couldn’t get past the 5th inning which was a strain on the bullpen. Gio has tweaked his mechanics thanks to the help of both Jonathan Papelbon and new pitching coach Mike Maddux. Gio said that Papelbon “is like a player-coach.”
Gio said he is working with the new mechanics, “Now I think with the new mechanics with Mike making me watch the strike zone the entire time I think I can pick up my target a little bit more.”
Using Mike Maddux’s theory on pitching, Gio said, “It’s not just grab the ball, throw it, there has to be a purpose behind everything you do, and with that purpose is building confidence. Trying to stay longer in the games. I want to minimize the 4 or 5 innings stuff. Pound the strike zone. Be aggressive in the strike zone. Be confident in all 3 pitches. It doesn’t matter what count you’re in, it’s always better to be ahead in the count, obviously, but you want to be as aggressive as possible, you still have a chance to get that out.”
Gio said that when Mike Maddux speaks, “your ears are wide open. You want to pick his brain as much as possible.”
It shouldn't matter, but I'm loving the hair. RT @MLB: Let it flow, @GioGonzalez47. #SpringTraining pic.twitter.com/m76kiTV0OG
— L_Fulcher (@L_Fulcher) February 17, 2016
Gio spoke of goals for 2016, “Innings I want to work on. Pitch count I want to work on. I want to minimize my walks, that’s definite. I want to be more aggressive in the strike zone.”
Gio also spoke about the change from McCatty to Maddux, “Putting Mike into that mix is definitely going to bring out that little thing that we need like a little more focus, a little more attacking the strike zone, and building confidence.”
This 2016 rotation under Mike Maddux could be one of the best in the Majors in 2016 if all goes according to the ‘plan’!