Despite trading away Juan Soto and Josh Bell last Tuesday, the Washington Nationals offense has been serviceable — scoring 25 runs across their last seven games. Yet over that span, they are 1-6, with the starting rotation the key culprit — allowing 32 runs across 21 2/3 innings. In their most recent sweep at the hands of the Phillies, the starting rotation allowed a whopping 12 homers.
While no one expected Washington’s rotation to be historically bad, their disastrous season isn’t surprising. This past off-season, despite having a glaring need, the Nats decided against heavily investing in the starting rotation — instead opting to sign a plethora of veterans to minor league deals, including Aaron Sanchez and Aníbal Sánchez. Veterans Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg were expected to carry the rotation, but that plan immediately fell flat on its face.
Strasburg started the season on the IL as he recovered from last year’s thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. He finally made his season debut on June 9, allowing seven runs across 4 2/3 innings. Sadly, he has yet to make another start — quickly landing back on the IL and is not expected to return this year.
For the second straight year, Corbin is dead last in ERA (7.02) and can no longer be relied on to even eat innings. He’s been unable to make it out of the first inning in two of his last three starts. Unsurprisingly, this has played a major part in the pitching staff’s disastrous campaign. On the year the Nationals rotation ranks last in ERA (6.17), FIP (5.59), fWAR (-1.1), and LOB% (67.9%), while also leading the league in losses (63), BB/9 (3.87), and HR/9 (1.89).
Come this off-season, the Nationals cannot afford to make the same mistake when it comes to building the rotation.
Relying on Corbin ($59 million) and Strasburg ($140 million) who are under contract for the next two and four years respectively, to return to their 2019 forms seems to be out of the question. Corbin should either be moved to the bullpen or released while Strasburg needs to seriously consider hanging up his cleats. Josiah Gray and newcomer MacKenzie Gore are the only locks to make next year’s rotation. Top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli , who still needs to work on his command, will be given an opportunity to win a spot at Spring Training.
Washington needs to sign at least two veteran starters this off-season who will be able to help keep the Nationals in games. The upcoming free-agent starting pitching market is very top-heavy. All eyes will be on Jacob deGrom, Carlos Rodon, and Justin Verlander — who are all expected to exercise their opt-outs or decline their player options for next year. Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, and Chris Bassist (mutual option) are all solid consolidation prizes for teams that miss out on the big three.
Nowhere near ready to return to contention, Washingon should instead set their eyes on Sean Manaea. He spent the first six years of his career with the A’s, going 50-41, with a 3.86 ERA, 759 strikeouts, and a 4.00 FIP — before being traded to San Diego before the start of this year. He’s taken a step back this year, going 6-4, with a 4.74 ERA, 118 strikeouts, and a 4.26 FIP in 114 innings.
Walks and the long ball have been behind his struggles this year. A year after only allowing 25 homers and posting a 2.1 BB/9 in 179 1/3 innings, he’s already allowed 18 homers while posting a 3.4 BB/9 in 20 starts. Despite his down year, Manaea would help eat innings — having made 24+ starts in four of his six seasons to start his career (keep in mind 2020 was a shortened season).
Another name to look out for is Tyler, Anderson, who is in the midst of a career year with the Dodgers. In 122 1/3 innings, he’s 13-1, with a 2.72 ERA, 97 strikeouts, and a 3.33 FIP. It is more than likely he regresses to his career norms (4.31 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 4/25 FIP), but that would still be a vast upgrade over this year’s rotation.
Nathan Eovaldi (17 starts, 4.23 ERA), Kyle Gibson (21 starts, 4.36 ERA), and Mike Clevinger (12 starts, 3.60 ERA) are other options who would allow the Nationals offense a fighting chance.