Last year didn’t go as planned for the Nationals, but 2019 is almost guaranteed to be better. They suffered through a few significant injuries to position players in 2018 (Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Eaton, Matt Wieters, and Howie Kendrick), and top prospect Victor Robles hasn’t even made his full-season debut yet.
Notice a name that wasn’t mentioned?
With that said, the biggest boost could come from the pitching staff, which was much-maligned across the board last season. A team with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Sean Doolittle should not have a 4.04 combined ERA (15th in the majors), yet that’s what happened last year.
Last year, after Scherzer—who finished in the top five in Cy Young voting for the sixth consecutive year—there was persistent volatility in Washington’s starting rotation. From the onset, the team didn’t have a fifth starter. A.J. Cole got the first crack at it, almost entirely because he was a former top prospect and was out of minor league options. He didn’t even make it through April before being designated for assignment. The Nationals then turned to Jeremy Hellickson, who actually pitched rather well, but wasn’t trusted to go deep into games and eventually began to suffer from a litany of injuries. Among others, top preseason pitching prospect Erick Fedde received some work, but his results were a mixed bag.
Complicating matters, Strasburg only made 22 starts due to multiple injuries, Tanner Roark never got into a rhythm—and has since been traded—and Gio Gonzalez was sent to Milwaukee in August. The shaky back end of the rotation and beyond was relied upon heavily. Starters outside the top four (Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Roark) made 50 starts—and only 19 of them came from Hellickson, who was the only one of the group to finish with an ERA below 5.00.
At least on paper, this year’s rotation appears much stronger. Scherzer and Strasburg are under contract for years to come, breakout lefty Patrick Corbin was added, as was veteran Aníbal Sánchez, and Hellickson was recently re-signed.
Interesting tidbit, Anibal Sanchez had the lowest Average Exit Velocity among pitchers with at least 170 batted balls last season. Here's the rest of the Top 10. pic.twitter.com/1YxDLpwuIf
— Blake Finney (@FinneyBlake) February 11, 2019
Before even considering the depth that a more experienced Fedde and Joe Ross, who returned in late-August after undergoing Tommy John surgery, add to the group, the top five have the potential to be among the best in the league.
In 2018, they pitched to a combined 3.05 ERA.
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) February 10, 2019
If Doolittle is healthy, that alone fixes much of the bullpen’s woes from 2018. The Nationals couldn’t close out games without him. However, they did add former closer Trevor Rosenthal, who will likely serve as the setup man and “spot closer.” Wander Suero showed plenty of promise—and, of equal importance, confidence—as a rookie, even if it wasn’t an outstanding season, and lefty Matt Grace was arguably their most consistent reliever, playing a variety of roles.
From there, it will depend on the organization’s philosophy. The Nationals went most of last season without a long reliever, and it occasionally came back to bite them. This role seems like a logical way to ease Ross back into form. Fedde could just as easily serve this function, but in either case, it partly depends on whether they’re willing to “give up” on them as starters.
If they opt to carry an eighth reliever—which I think is unlikely, given the wealth of position players—or continue to operate without a long man, Koda Glover, who may or may not still be the closer of the future, could sneak his way onto the roster.
Justin Miller, Jimmy Cordero, Austen Williams, Tanner Rainey, Austin Adams, and James Bourque are other options on the 40-man roster, as are Austin Voth and Kyle McGowin—although I expect them to wind up being optioned to AAA Fresno as starters.
Perhaps the most intriguing non-roster invitee to spring training among the pitching staff is Aaron Barrett, a former lynchpin in Washington’s bullpen before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015 and suffering devastating complications.
Big league veterans Henderson Alvarez, Vidal Nuño, J.J. Hoover, and Scott Copeland will get a chance to showcase their talents for the Nationals and the rest of the league. Youngsters Wil Crowe (the team’s No. 5 prospect, per MLB.com) and Ronald Peña will also be in the mix, although they shouldn’t be expected to break camp on the roster.
There appears to be much more certainty and dependability within Washington’s pitching staff entering 2019. The starting five plus Ross and Fedde should be a significant upgrade over last year, and combining that with two solid backend relievers will help keep the young, developing relievers in low-leverage situations, while also demanding fewer innings out of them.