WASHINGTON -- With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to West Palm Beach, Fla., in less than three weeks, it's time to take a position-by-position look at the 2019 Nationals. First up: starting pitchers.
Projected starters:Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Joe Ross
Maybe it should have been a giveaway when Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, usually coy about his plans, stated at the start of December how "starting pitching is king." Less than two weeks later, he was introducing Corbin, the prize of the free-agent starting pitching class, at a news conference at Nationals Park. The Nationals believe their starting rotation is their backbone, and when they have a good rotation, they are normally celebrating a division title at the end of the year.
The rotation is also near the top of the list of reasons why the Nationals felt they underachieved last year, after their 4.03 combined starter's ERA ranked ninth in the National League. They expect this year to be different with Corbin joining perennial Cy Young Award challengers Scherzer and Strasburg, forming one of the most formidable trios in the NL.
Washington is led by Scherzer, yet again coming off another outstanding season at the age of 34. Scherzer fanned a career-high 300 batters in 220 2/3 innings while posting a 2.53 ERA. It took a historic season from the Mets' Jacob deGrom to prevent him from celebrating a third consecutive Cy Young Award. Even at Scherzer's age, there is no sign of a drop-off on the horizon, and he should continue to be one of the top pitchers in the NL.
Strasburg's injury issues have been well-documented, and they continued again last year, with two separate stints on the disabled list limiting him to just 22 starts. More concerning for the Nats might have been the slight velocity dip he experienced toward the end of the season, and while the team insists that will return, it will be worth watching this spring. Strasburg, 30, still should be one of the Majors' most dominant pitchers, but having him healthy for the stretch run will be key.
Corbin arrives to D.C. after a breakout year with the D-backs and with a lucrative contract, but he shouldn't carry the immense pressure that normally comes with that territory. Instead, he can slot in nicely behind the Nats' other two aces -- or in between the two if they so choose -- and continue to use the devastating slider that carried him to a 3.15 ERA last season with 246 strikeouts in 200 innings.
The Nats made a bit of a gamble with their No. 4 spot by trading rotation stalwart Tanner Roark to the Reds and signing free agent Sanchez. Roark had been one of their most reliable starters to take the ball every fifth day, but Sanchez is coming off a career renaissance in Atlanta and might have a higher upside this year despite his age.
The fifth-starter spot is likely to be "open" during Spring Training, but this will be Ross' job to lose. If he can prove healthy coming off Tommy John surgery and capable of perhaps returning to his form before 2017, the spot is his.
Other candidates:Erick Fedde, Henderson Alvarez, Austin Voth, Vidal Nuno
This might be the biggest hole left on the Nationals' roster. Washington faltered last season in part because it lacked the starting-pitching depth to endure key injuries to Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson, and the club isn't currently set up to withstand any sort of extended absence to the rotation.
Fedde would be the pitcher the Nationals feel most comfortable inserting into the rotation in a pinch, and while he has shown promise at times in his young career, he has not been able to produce results consistently (career 6.44 ERA in 14 starts) or stay healthy. Alvarez and Nuno will be given an opportunity this spring, but right now, the Nats are short on sure things behind their top five or six starters.
This should be one of the Nationals' strengths once again, provided they can stay healthy because they can ill afford an injury. However, on three out of five days, Washington is likely to have the better starter on the mound, and the top four of this rotation can stand up to just about anyone in the Majors.