With addition of Scherzer, Nats boast 'Super Six'
With the addition of Max Scherzer, the Nationals have a pitching rotation for the ages, but you know what? Once again, we're seeing the difference between greatness when it comes to a collection of starters on a Major League staff and whatever otherworldly adjective is appropriate for all of those years when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz kept throwing their way toward Cooperstown.
Just within the last couple of years, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz officially became Baseball Hall of Famers after they spent nearly a decade together with the Braves as projected Cooperstown guys.
The point is, as splendid as the starters are for the Nationals -- Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Scherzer -- none is flirting at the moment with having even the bill of his cap in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In contrast, soon after Maddux joined Glavine and Smoltz in Atlanta as a free agent before the 1993 season, the Cooperstown clock began ticking for all three, and Maddux was just 27.
Glavine was the same age, and Smoltz was a year younger.
In case you're wondering, Scherzer is 30, and Fister also is 30. As for the others in the Nationals' rotation, Gonzalez is 29, Zimmermann and Roark are 28, and Strasburg is 26. So never mind about the Cooperstown clock. The Father Time clock is ticking on the baseball careers of those Washington starting pitchers, but here's the thing: Six to three.
Six is the number of accomplished starters for the Nats, and three refers to Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz -- who occasionally went from a Terrific Trio to a Quality Quartet, with a Steve Avery here and a Denny Neagle there.
Six is better than three.
Which means, barring any defections from the Nationals' rotation between now and the end of the season, inquiring minds wish to know: Will they have the deepest starting staff in Major League history? Actually, before we address that question, we have to deal with this one: Do the Nats have the game's best group of starters right now?
Yes. Definitely, yes.
The Nationals' Super Six is better than the Clayton Kershaw-led rotation of the Dodgers that has Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke serving only as Kershaw's sidekick. It is better than the Giants' staff headed by Madison Bumgarner, the Mr. October of pitchers. It is better than the mighty collection of starters for the Cardinals, ranging from Adam Wainwright to Lance Lynn to Michael Wacha. It is better than those solid staffs of the Angels, White Sox and Pirates, and those rising ones of the Mets, the Marlins and the Royals.
Just last season, no member of the Nationals' Super Six had an ERA above 3.57, and each of Washington's starters (along with Scherzer in Detroit) was highly efficient regarding their strikeout-to-walk ratio. The whole thing creates a slew of wonderful dilemmas for manager Matt Williams and pitching coach Steve McCatty. For one, who do you start on Opening Day? Strasburg has been the Nats' designated ace, and for good reason (14-11 with a 3.14 ERA, a Major League-leading 34 starts and tied for the NL high with 242 strikeouts last season). He has started the last three Opening Days for the Nationals.
That was before the arrival of Scherzer, though, who won the 2013 American League Cy Young Award while leading the league in victories the past two seasons. His $210 million deal for seven years is the richest given to a right-handed pitcher. Which means Scherzer wasn't exactly signed by the Nats to enjoy the sights and sounds around the Lincoln Memorial.
Remember, too, that more than a few Washington fans thought Zimmermann deserved to start Game 1 of the Nationals' playoff series last season against the Giants, instead of Strasburg.
Here's another one of those issues for the Nationals: Both Zimmermann and Fister can become free agents after this season. To keep from losing one or both of them without getting much compensation, the Nats may trade one or both of them in the near future for help elsewhere on their roster.
Who do you trade? Do you trade anybody?
If the Nationals trade just one of them (as rumored) between now and the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, they'll go from a Super Six to a Fabulous Five. That still would separate their starting rotation from others. Not only for this season, but for all seasons when it comes to depth.
We've already discussed those Braves rotations of the Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz of the 1990s and beyond. They had mostly an average supporting cast beyond their No. 4 starter. The same was true of the 1971 Orioles with their four 20-game winners (Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson).
That said, the 1954 Indians were loaded in their rotation. They were the Braves before the Braves, with a trio of future Hall of Famers in Bob Feller, Early Wynn and Bob Lemon leading the way. Then Cleveland had the lesser known Mike Garcia finishing with a 19-8 record and a 2.64 ERA. The Tribe also had the even more obscure Art Houtteman going 15-7 with a 3.35 ERA.
Decades later, the Dodgers captured two National League pennants in the latter half of the 1970s with much help from a stifling rotation of Don Sutton, Burt Hooton, Tommy John, Doug Rau and Rick Rhoden. In 1978, their sixth man was Bob Welch, a 21-year-old rookie who finished 7-4 with a 2.02 ERA. He grabbed national fame after he used his amazingly rapid fastballs to strike out Reggie Jackson in a crucial situation that autumn during the World Series.
Potentially, Washington's starting rotation can surpass the ones of those Dodgers, Indians and others in history.
You know, if the Nationals' Super Six stays together.