Point-Counterpoint: Starting Pitching #Nats

Photo by Craig Nedrow for TalkNats

Ray: Everyone loves the long ball, but Starting Pitching is what brings home the hardware.  Ten minutes of listening to the pundits on MLB Radio will invariably lead to the discussion that the Angels MUST make a dramatic addition to the starting rotation.  Trout and Rendon won’t win squat without the arms.  But, the Angels are at one extreme of the spectrum; Position-player-loaded while devoid of top pitching talent.  On the other hand the Nationals are a pitching-centric franchise.  If you’re going to build on a foundation of great pitching it better darned sight be really good.  2020, despite all of its weirdness only reinforced the point.  The Nats’ starters were awful.  The losing record is hardly a surprise.  Will turning the calendar fix that on its own?  Don’t bet the ranch on it. The worry beads are there in abundance.

Steve: So far I agree with everything you said. The most expensive starting rotation in baseball history at $98 million in 2020 and they sucked as a group and were statistically the worst in Nats history in ERA. That is hard to do when the Nats had a $5 million starting rotation back in the Jim Bowden years. If I told you this group was a combined 5.38 ERA with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, you would ask me what drugs I’m on because that was a typo. Last year they were 3.53 so it looks like a typo and I assure you that is accurate.

With that said, balance is the key in building an Earl Weaver type of team, great pitching, defense, and the 3-run homer. The Nats had none of that in 2020 except for the middle of the bullpen and Juan Soto.

I do expect that new pitching coach Jim Hickey will fix them somewhat and having Stras and Joe Ross back will help. Amazingly, some were shocked that the Nats got rid of Paul Menhart who got caught in the “what have you done for me lately.” Someone had to answer for the poor 2020 and it wasn’t going to be Mike Rizzo or Dave Martinez.

So part of it is that the returning pieces of the Nats rotation must improve and Anibal is gone and is replaced internally by Joe Ross or a new free agent or trade acquisition and then Ross would slide to the #5 in the rotation. The rest of it has be internal improvement.

What are your ideas?

Ray: Long before thinking about what to add to the roster, I want to look at where we are.  Foundations are meant to be solid.  Any team focused on pitching-first is a blown elbow away from mediocrity.  So, pitching foundations are never as solid as they appear.  But, this one has so many open questions at this point it is disconcerting.  Here’s a short list:

  • Will Strasburg return to form…in a timely manner?
  • Will Joe Ross be effective?
  • Will Patrick Corbin regain his solid performance of 2019?
  • And, then there are the multiple questions about Max Scherzer.

The first three are unanswerable from here.  We really will have to see.  But, Max is another story.  This guy has been a wonderful signing.  For a mega-deal the Nats made out much better than most.  This is the “Walk Year” which begs the first question: Does he play here all year then leave?  Or, is he trade bait?

Here’s my big worry with Max.  Check out this graph.  These are the most recent five starting pitchers inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame plotting their age vs their WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for that year.

At first it looks like a jumbled mess.  But, look at the cluster of very negatively sloped downward performances at Max’ age.  Pedro Martinez‘ chart isn’t shown.  But, it is a cautionary tale. He accumulated 7.0 WAR in his age-33 season and only a combined 1.9 WAR for the last four years of his career.

Let’s insert Max into the mix and see what’s going on:

Yep’, he fits right in.  This is the sliding board downhill that these fastball-strikeout guys hit when they get to this age.  But, if you look to the right there’s often a bit of a renaissance.  They learn a new pitch, change teams, get new coaching, and often wake up that they can’t blow people out anymore.  Max is classic.  His  2-strike “putaway” pitch is not as effective as it was.  It gets fouled off more often these days.  The writing is on the wall that his strikeout king days are coming to a close.  So, here’s the second Max question: Has he bottomed out yet?

He’s been the lead dog for a long time.  If Strasburg comes back healthy, those days are over.   That begs the third and final Max question: How would he handle the “demotion?”

Steve: Those charts sure have peaks and valleys and age regression is real. Only Mike Mussina in that chart went to retirement on an “up” year. We see it too often that great pitchers push it until they embarrass themselves in their final year — heck, we can extend that to some position players too.  I call it “the body will no longer do what the brain asks it to do” meaning they know how to throw the pitch but it no longer has the same zip and life on it.

So on Max Scherzer, I’m know for sure that he wants to continue playing past 2021 but that is based on where his mind is now. We have to see 2021.  Like you said, 2021 is his “Walk Year” which not only has to include your questions:

  1. Does he play here all year then leave?
  2. Or, is he trade bait?
  3. Or do you offer to extend him now at a team friendly deal based on Charlie Morton at $10 to $15 million? Max is 9 months younger than Morton.

If you don’t extend him now then I think to answer #1 you play him in 2021 but reassess at the trade deadline.  #2 he is only trade bait if he agrees as a 10/5 player he can’t be traded without his approval, but if you get offered an unbelievable package then you must consider it. #3 I get nostalgic so if Max agreed to a team friendly deal I would extend him.

Where are you on a #4 and #5 pitcher? I’m all in with Joe Ross for one of those spots.

Ray: I think Ross is a perfectly acceptable #5 unless he’s gone on a Quarantine Diet.  A year off for a pitcher keeps the arm a year younger.  The fly in the ointment is #4.  FeddeVoth?  I keep coming up with more questions than answers about this rotation.  Who it won’t be is Trevor Bauer.   The Mets and Angels are getting ready to shoot their bolts to get him.  All these Braves’ signings (Smyly, Morton)  have to be sending up signal flares in the Mets’ executive suites.

My guess is the Nat’s go for a down-the-list type.  JA Happ, et al.  Unless Rizzo goes all “Reclamation” with someone.  The fact he didn’t move at all on Morton (that we know of) is a bit of a tell.

Steve: The Braves didn’t exactly pay market rates and I think they wanted those guys to sign early and paid premiums to do it. They will either look like the smartest guys in the room or the dumbest. They are still wiping egg off of their faces from Cole Hamels, but patting themselves on the back for Marcell Ozuna. I say “idiots”. Why wouldn’t you add a team option at $18 million and then you control the player. They get nothing now if Ozuna walks.

Back to pitching, my guy out of the gates was Jake Odorizzi. I think he is the best pitcher out there after Bauer. Let’s face it, this is a weak starting pitchers market. Of course the Nats will be attached to the only Top-100 free agent who Boras has — James Paxton. His injury history should scare you away that he has not had one season where he made every start.

If Nats ownership has a change of heart and wants to spend, I go for Odorizzi. If not, flip a coin on a reclamation project. The Nats have not been lucky on those, ever. They are usually mid-season DFA’s. Maybe with Jim Hickey, the Nats luck will change. As to your suggestion, is JA Happ a reclamation project or a guy you wonder if this is his year. He has just been too inconsistent to spend a lot on him. At that point, you might stick with in-house options and save the cash for position players.

Your thoughts?

Ray: To your earlier point about balance, Rizzo has a full-blown hole at first base to fill.  Third base is an open question.  And, he needs a big bopper bat to follow Soto.  And, the Catcher position needs stiffening.   Complicating things is the lack of clarity concerning the Designated Hitter next year in the National League.  Given the lack of prospects in the farm, an understandable unwillingness to give up on Robles just yet, and the overarching strategy of the franchise I just don’t see him making a big trade.  He’s going to have to get that big bat with cash.  (My dark horse fave is Nelson Cruz, short-term deal.)   Given all that I don’t think there will be a big spend on a starter.  But, I doubt he’s staying in-house for that #4 spot.  Happ, or someone like him, Matt Shoemaker maybe, is my guess.   Whoever it is will be a one-year deal.  It seems to be the year for those.

So, summing this up, there’s plenty of reason for concern.  This starting rotation will dictate the success of the club.  The Braves have loaded up for bear.  (They did overpay for those two veterans.  And, Ozuna following Freeman was absolute Kyrptonite.  Agreed that they have to be smacking their foreheads having not put an option on him.)  The Mets have promised a new age of ascendancy, and the Marlins have suddenly broken out of the storm cellar.  Thank goodness for the Phillies’ usual lack of competency.  It’s a tough division.  The biggest worry here is Strasburg coming back to dominant form.  If he does, then it’s “Game on.”  If not, then it will probably change the arc of the franchise.  The mega deal that yields little to nothing becomes a lodestone.  The examples are too numerous to list.  After Stras we get one last year of Max.  We have to hope that Hickey makes a difference and stops, or at least slows his slide.  Corbin, a pickup, and Ross provide their own sets of questions.  The answers won’t start coming until April.  There’s plenty of time to fret over things until then.

Right now we just have to wait until early Christmas on December 2 when the Non-tenders come out.  Stand by for a feeding frenzy by the General Managers.  There’s a decent chance this #4 slot gets resolved in the next week to ten days.

Steve: Here we are writing this and finishing up on Thanksgiving. A day where there is supposed to be no baseball news and yesterday the Pirates cut a player. That sucks. Couldn’t they have waited?

Back to baseball and I guess life, yah no doubt December 2 is going to be a busy day and everyone is wondering if GMs can make those trades of arb-eligibles that they don’t want to keep. Two years ago Trevor Williams was a breakout pitcher for the Pirates. They didn’t wait for December 2nd. They just kicked him to the curb. There’s a guy I would take but only on a Minor League deal. There will be more non-tenders just like him. Rizzo might find a diamond in the rough or just stick with Ross, Fedde, and Voth and see what shakes out and reassess at July 31 with the team’s status and the trade deadline.

So if I’m spending Lerner’s money, I’m in on Jake Odorizzi or else I’m dumpster diving for guys like Williams on Minor League deals.

I think if you are betting on the Nats in the upcoming baseball season, now would be a good time to work the odds early if you believe the team is going to do a lot to improve. Things are really going to heat up next week in the Hot Stove!

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