When looking at the 2018 season in the rearview mirror, my contention is that with all the issues documented daily, all the whining about this and that — the single biggest issue and the main reason the 2018 season was a failure due to the shocking under-performance of the starting rotation — almost everything else is pretty much noise.
“Starting pitching is the lifeblood of [our] baseball team,” Mike Rizzo said on the final day of the season. “We’ve always said [that] we’re a pitching, defense, speed, and athleticism organization. We’re built around that, and I don’t see that changing.”
The rotation which has been the bedrock of this team’s 6-years of continued success crumbled to where the Washington Nationals only had 1 dependable starting pitcher wire-to-wire. It was the Nationals worst starter’s ERA (4.03) since the 2010 season. In comparison between last year and this year, Stephen Strasburg went from a 5.7 WAR to 2.2, Gio Gonzalez went from a 3.4 WAR to 2.0 WAR, and Tanner Roark went from 2.5 WAR to 1.9 WAR, and it was Jeremy Hellickson who saved the rotation from total collapse with exceptionally competent pitching — but he too failed to stay healthy.
In addition to this, the lack of rotation depth really bit the team in the rear-end as none of the rookie call-ups were able to raise their game on a consistent basis. The team started the season with A.J. Cole as its number number five starter, and he was DFA’d in mid-April. While Mike Rizzo had Edwin Jackson in the Minor Leagues, he allowed him to leave via an opt-out in his contract.
The failure of the rotation also bled to the bullpen as constant short outings put an unsustainable strain on the group in the month of June and early July. The Nationals did not have a true long-man in the bullpen which put a strain on a team that saw consistent short outings by Gonzalez and Roark in June through the All-Star break.
So, what’s in store for 2019?
1) Max Scherzer – By the numbers, Max put together his best year yet. He was a 7.2 WAR and likely won’t win him another Cy Young award (deGrom had a stunning season). Max is 34 years old, and that DeLorean has 150,000 miles on it so if god forbid age regression begins the Nationals would be in trouble. It wouldn’t be shocking if that “window” people refer to continues as long as Scherzer continues to have Cy Young level years. This team seems to go as Max Scherzer goes until this year which is why the rotation must be rebuilt around him.
2) Stephen Strasburg – The big question is whether Stras was ever fully healthy in 2018. He was well below 2017 levels even before he went on the DL and when he returned from his 2nd stint on the DL, his drop in velocity was perceptible (92.5 avg from 94.9 avg). On an encouraging note, Strasburg’s last start was good and the velo was slightly up. If Stras doesn’t return to close to his 2017 levels, the Nationals could be in a tough situation. Strasburg has 5-years ($138 million) remaining on his contract which includes two opt-outs after next season.
3) Tanner Roark – Roark has now had 2 mediocre years in a row posting up back-to-back mid-4’s ERAs following a great 2016. He is turning 32 years old and will be in his 3rd year of arbitration likely scheduled to earn $8 – $10 mil in 2019 in arbitration. Tendering Roark a contract is a tough call as he is right-handed and $10 million is more than a team would generally pay for a 4.50 ERA . If the Nats had more depth, the scale would likely tip towards a non-tender but having 3 question marks in the rotation may be a bit too much. If Roark returns, he has to get in much better shape.
4) Joe Ross – Ross was a wonderful story when he first came up in his debut season. He earned the nickname ‘Joe Cool’ honestly by using a small arsenal of pitches to get major league hitters out consistently. Frankly, Joe has looked better than I anticipated coming back from TJ surgery and as of now he is counted on to be in the starting rotation in 2019. Fingers crossed.
5) Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and Jefry Rodriguez – All had very good and very bad outings. Fedde in particular is a big investment as a 1st round pick and one would think should be in the rotation in 2019, he has the tools but his results both up here and, in the minors, have never been all that great. The 2019 season might be make or break for Fedde as a Washington National.
6) Patrick Corbin – Most people’s first choice as a FA signing. A word of caution, given the need for starting pitching by many teams especially the NY Yankees, Corbin is likely to get close to a Scherzer type contract. If that is the case, I would run as fast as I could in the opposite direction, at the age of 29, Corbin has put 1 great year (2018), and 2 good years (2013 and 2017) . The Nats can outbid everyone (if they don’t re-sign Bryce Harper), but should they?
7) Dallas Keuchel – Keuchel doesn’t have Corbin’s upside but has strung together 5 very good years in a row and there is no real sign of regression, Keuchel will turn 31 before the start of next year but he too will get paid like a great pitcher and he is not a great pitcher.
8) Jeremy Hellickson – Hellickson was solid as a rock when healthy and I would have no issue bringing him back in 2019 at a reasonable 1 year contract even if he is a 5 inning starter, the problem is that Hellickson may have earned himself a better deal in both years and dollars and I would not go beyond 1 year and I would not overpay.
As we can see the possibilities are nearly endless and we didn’t even consider trade targets but this may be where Rizzo earns his salary and again he may pull some things from his sleeves we aren’t considering.