Turn, Turn, Turn: The Future of the Washington Nationals Rotation

brandonconner
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(This is Part Two of a two-part series about the Washington Nationals rotation. You can read Part One here.)

Back in the sixties, the Byrds once sang, “There is a season; turn, turn, turn.” In other words, there’s a time for everything, and everything must pass. Nothing is permanent.

There’s probably no better example of that than the sports world.

Going into 2015, the Washington Nationals have what all national commentators are calling the best rotation in baseball. With a starting five that features Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez, it’s no wonder why.

But the Nationals likely won’t be able to keep that group together forever. So what awaits Washington when one or more of their current starters leaves? While it’s always a bit cloudy, there’s still something of a picture of what’s lurking down the road in our crystal ball.

One Foot Out the Door

As discussed before, Zimmermann’s departure is all but a foregone conclusion. He’s already turned down a deal that would have been “team friendly” for the Nationals, and with the addition of Scherzer’s $210 million contract, the team likely doesn’t have the budget to match the sort of money that will be thrown his way in free agency, regardless of how Scherzer’s payout is structured.

The bigger question mark, as always, seems to be the Orchid, Stephen Strasburg. Once the curtain falls on the 2016 season, the former number one pick and most enigmatic player on Washington’s roster will be free to sign with whatever team he chooses. Given the record of his agent, Scott Boras, his “choice” will likely be the team that writes the biggest check.

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But there’s another factor in this situation working against the Nationals, and that’s personal preference. Strasburg is, in the words of Barry Svrluga, a “creature of comfort,” a trait we’ve seen play out on the field so many times, and the fact that Strasburg has been unwilling to reach out a hand to a city that’s wanted so badly to embrace him as their own doesn’t bode well for Washington.

Southern California is the place that Strasburg calls home, and there’s plenty of teams there that could start batting their eyelashes at Strasburg in the 2016 offseason. San Diego, with their signings of James Shields and Josh Johnson in the offseason, has shown a willingness to spend. Even more likely are the pair of teams just a couple of hours up the interstate – the Angels and the Dodgers – who wouldn’t blink at paying Strasburg “Max Scherzer money.”

That isn’t to say that the Nationals have zero chance of resigning Zimmermann or Strasburg, but those are both long shots. The most likely situation is that, after the 2016 season, Zimmermann and Strasburg are players of the past.

Two More Question Marks

It’s amazing that, somehow, Zimmermann’s impending free agency has managed to push Doug Fister’s status for next season to an afterthought, but Fister will also be a free agent after 2015. Right now, it looks like any sort of extension isn’t forthcoming, so if the Nationals do intend to keep Fister around, we won’t know anything for a while.

The bigger question is whether or not the Nationals should bring Fister back. In his first year in Washington after being acquired in a trade following the 2013 offseason, Fister was the winningest pitcher on the staff (16-8) and one of their best and most consistent. He posted a 2.41 ERA over 164 innings pitched. But Fister also just turned 31 years old, and so far this spring, he’s struggled in his five starts with an ERA over 7. While that doesn’t necessarily imply anything terrible, it can’t be a good sign, either. If Fister were to re-sign with Washington, it’d likely be on a very short term deal.

There’s also Gonzalez to think about. When the Nationals first signed him back in 2012, Gio pitched his way to a 21-8 record, and the Nationals looked like they’d just found the bargain of the century. Since then, things haven’t been quite so rosy. In 2013, Gio managed to go 11-8, and in 2014, nagging injuries sabotaged Gio’s efforts and held him to a .500 record.

If Gio returns to form, there’s no reason that the Nats shouldn’t keep him around for an extended period of time. The team holds a $12 million option for 2017, and if that option is exercised, the $12 million in 2018 becomes guaranteed if Gonzalez pitches 180 innings in 2017. After 2018, Gio becomes an unrestricted free agent, but if things don’t go well, the team could walk away from him after 2016. In other words, the Nationals are in a good spot with regards to Gio.

The Replacements

When it comes to free agency, most likely the biggest worry fans have comes from how their team will find replacements should the team lose their current proven veterans. It’s that fear of the unknown, unproven commodity that drives fans to fret over offseason departures.

So, in the case of the Nationals, who does Mike Rizzo have to replace their potential free agent leavings?

First, there’s Tanner Roark. For the time being, given the fact that the Nationals have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to starting pitching, he’s been relegated to the bullpen. He’s expected to serve as the team’s long reliever in 2015 and possibly fill in with a spot start or two. But it bears mentioning that Roark proved his worth as a starter in 2014, when he went 15-10 in his first full season.

Roark is still fairly young. He’s just 28 now, and will turn 29 in October. More importantly, the Nationals have control of him for a good long while. He’ll be eligible for arbitration in 2017, and isn’t set to hit free agency until 2020. If Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister end up plying their trade elsewhere in 2016, Roark could easily slide into one of those open spots in the rotation.

As for the other open spot, right now it appears that it’s A.J. Cole’s to lose. The 23-year-old, who’s ranked the #30 prospect by Baseball Prospectus, split 2014 between AA Harrisburg and AAA Syracuse. He managed a 13-3 record with a 3.16 ERA and 111 strikeouts (7.5 K/9). During spring, Cole has pitched 10 2/3 innings in four games with two starts. It’s likely the Nats consider him one more season away from fulltime starter status, but he could see a spot start or two in case of emergency or during September call-ups.

The other big name that the Nationals still have lurking down in the minors is 20-year-old Lucas Giolito. He’s widely viewed as one of the Nationals’ best prospects, ranked the #7 overall prospect by Baseball America, #6 by mlb.com, and #6 by Baseball Prospectus. There’s little doubt across baseball that Giolito possesses special talent as a pitcher.

Given his age and the fact that he hasn’t appeared with the Nationals in Major League spring training, it’s likely that Giolito is still seen as two years away from being ready for the big leagues. He also hasn’t yet been moved up past A ball. Giolito spent 2014 with Hagerstown, where he posted a 10-2 record over 20 starts and 98 innings, with an ERA of 2.20 and 110 strikeouts (an amazing 10.1 K/9 rate). As impressive as that is, Giolito most likely won’t join the Nationals as a fulltime starter until after Strasburg has had his chance to fly the coup.

The Burden of Mike Rizzo

And this is where, for General Managers like Mike Rizzo, the rubber meets the road. This is where the tough decisions must be made, and it’s why the Nationals pay him the big bucks. It’s his job to look at the holes that free agency might create, and it’s his job to fill them.

As mentioned in part one, teams like the Nationals can only keep a certain number of their own players. They’re forced to decide which players can’t be replaced and sign them to long-term contracts. For the rest, the team has to look at the roster, find where there are less expensive options, and let some of the more well-established names go. It’s not the easiest thing to accept, and for some fans, the process can get frustrating. After all, what’s the point in getting emotionally attached to a player if, a few years down the road, the team opts to replace them with the cheap, unproven call-up?

But that’s also part of why we love baseball. It’s why we keep coming back. For the drama, for the uncertainty that lingers over the game, and for the opportunity to see the next great player come along.

It just makes it all the more rewarding when that “next great player” is wearing Washington across their chest.

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