Winning at the MLB level is about making the toughest decisions. “Best
25 26 goes North” is what they say as Spring Training camp breaks. Large guaranteed contracts generally get spots on the roster due to dollars instead of merit. That’s the business side of baseball. General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “best 25 go North” on April 2, 2012 when he chose Ross Detwiler over John Lannan for the final rotation spot on the roster. It might have been the first time that Rizzo made a move based on winning over a player’s salary. We all know that the 2012 Nats would go on to win the NL East and shock many that season with 98 wins.
After watching Patrick Corbin‘s 17th blowup start of 2023 last night, it is crystal clear, barring a transformational miracle, that he won’t be in the grouping of the best 5 starting pitchers in training camp to start what Rizzo said would be the beginning of the next phase on either February 13 or 14 of 2024 when training camp opens. Coming out of a rebuild, you go into that transition phase. It is possible that Corbin will be one of the eight best bullpen options. He was excellent in the 2019 out of the bullpen in the postseason.
The Nationals will not dump Corbin before Spring Training camp opens. Give it a try in the bullpen and see what you got. This 2024 team should be built to contend. Nobody is asking for a $200 million payroll. But spend enough to improve the starting rotation at the very least. Manager Dave Martinez, in three different media sessions this week, has talked about “playoffs and playoff contention.”
While Martinez is optimistic, he is saying what many in the fan base want too. Losing sucks. Accepting a level below mediocrity is like accepting failure when you know you have a choice. Corbin did his best with what he had. This was actually his best ERA year in the past three years with a 5.20 ERA — but his FIP (5.28) was actually better last year at 4.83. Evaluators could say that the improvement in ERA was really just all about the improved defense. Rizzo promised a better defense and delivered on that promise. All of the pitchers, except MacKenzie Gore, benefitted from that improved defense. It was also clear that the analytics and defensive positioning finally took a big step forward. So if you go by FIP year over year, Corbin was worse than last year. He didn’t do anything in the offseason like create a new pitch to go with his slider and changeup. His fastball is nothing more than a BP pitch when located over the plate — just ask Adley Rutschman who was the fortunate recipient last night for a towering home run that was the difference in the game.
If the Nats are serious about winning in 2024, then make the tough decision and move Corbin and Trevor Williams into a bullpen competition, and bring the best five rotation arms North. Let’s say Gore, Josiah Gray, and Jake Irvin are 3 locks, and Jackson Rutledge is in the competition for the 5th spot. You still don’t want to block Cade Cavalli who will be rehabbing from his UCL “TJ” surgery on his pitching elbow. If 2024 is your equivalent to 2011, then it is a transition year coming out of a rebuild — and you are still expected to be a good team. You go get an ace in free agency (yes, I know — easier said than done) like Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery, and then have a real competition for the №5 rotation spot in camp with Rutledge and DJ Herz and any veteran you bring into camp. Corbin and Williams need to be in the bullpen competition and the best 26 go North. Besides the 26 best to go to north, what about the coaching staff?
Maybe Martinez has changed his tune also when it comes to protecting certain members of his coaching staff. He didn’t say with certainty like he did last year that they are all returning. When asked about his coaching staff, Martinez said, “I am going sit down and talk to Riz and talk a lot about what is going to transpire for next year … .” This is where Martinez needs to have an honest assessment and see if his players need new voices especially from the hitting and pitching coach where Darnell Coles and Jim Hickey are those voices currently.
Also, this is where the Lerner ownership has to back up their talk about it being “the right time.” Timing is very subjective — but one thing is clear that this is the time to take a step forward just like Ted Lerner did after the 2010 season. That team improve 10-wins from 59 the prior season. These Nats have already improved 14-wins from 55 wins last year — and with three games left to play, maybe these Nats reach 70+ wins this season and at least 15-wins better.
Again, talk is cheap. Put your money where your mouth is and sign your Jayson Werth equivalent from the free agent starting pitching pool this offseason. Give Martinez the tools he needs, and the ability to build the best starting rotation he can since 2019. With any luck, the playoffs won’t just be the talk, rather a reality to shock the baseball world.
In many ways this team has overachieved, or at least where the evaluators thought they would be in 2023. The team just needs a better roster, and some of them have to come from outside of the organization from other teams. Some of it will come from top prospects from within the organization.