Want to know how far the Washington Nationals will go in 2017? Offseason moves (and non-moves) and closer situation aside, look no further than the starting rotation.
The Washington Nationals are hoping to finally get over the hump in 2017. After losing in the NLDS in three of the last five seasons, this club is as close to “World Series or bust” as you can get. If they are to achieve their goal, they will need to lean on the thing that got them 95 wins and an NL East division title in 2016: their starting rotation.
MLB.com’s Jamal Collier argues that a healthy rotation will be the key to the Nationals’ success this season, and it’s hard to refute that claim. Last year, Nats starters placed second in MLB with a 3.60 ERA, behind only the eventual champion Chicago Cubs (2.96). It would be hard for them to be much better than that, but it’s certainly possible.
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Why? Well, as usual, Stephen Strasburg is something of a linchpin in all of this. He experienced a tale of two seasons in 2016. For the first half, he was utterly dominant, spinning a 2.51 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 4.18 K/BB ratio through his first 17 outings. He stifled opponents to the tune of a .195 batting average over that span. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off at that point. Strasburg skidded to a 7.36 ERA and 1.52 WHIP over his final seven outings (though he did still manage a healthy 4.09 K/BB).
Injuries definitely played a role, as a sore elbow and flexor mass strain ended his season for good in early September. It was a thoroughly frustrating conclusion to what initially looked like a banner year. For now, the Nats are confident that the 28-year-old right-hander will be ready to go this spring and prove their seven-year, $175 million extension was a wise investment.
So, what if Strasburg remains healthy in 2017 and pitches like he did for the first few months of last season? Then he would join Max Scherzer as possibly the toughest one-two rotation punch in all of baseball. Scherzer collected the second Cy Young of his career last year in convincing fashion, leading the NL with 20 wins, 228.1 innings pitched and a 5.07 K/BB. His 284 strikeouts and 0.97 WHIP were tops among both leagues. Overall, the righty maintained a 2.96 ERA while taking the mound a robust 34 times.
Oh, and he also matched the nine-inning major league record with 20 strikeouts in a game last May.
Scherzer is proving to be worth every penny of the over $200 million the Nationals spent on him. They will once again be more than glad to pencil him in as the ace of their staff. But as his 33rd birthday looms in July, is it time to start wondering whether some regression is in order?
It’s impossible to predict the future, of course, but Scherzer has shown no signs of slowing down as he has blown past age 30. If anything, he’s gotten better. Even if he starts to slide a little bit in 2017, it shouldn’t be anything too dramatic. Scherzer has demonstrated an ability to make the best of situations; he served up an NL-most 31 home runs last year but was still dominant, for instance. And a full season of peak Strasburg should more than make up for any slight decline.
Washington also has considerable depth to rely upon. Tanner Roark was no slouch last season either, posting a 2.82 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 210 frames. While he might not be quite as good again this year (3.79 FIP), he should be more than adequate in a number-three starter role. 23-year-old Joe Ross is only going to get better, and youngster A.J. Cole is also waiting in the wings. Veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez might even be able to turn things around.
Everyone talks about the Mets, if healthy, as the rotation to beat in this division. But you can certainly bring the Nationals to that debate, too. Washington has several other big questions to answer that could determine the fate of the team: Will Bryce Harper bounce back? What will newly-acquired Adam Eaton bring to the table? Just who exactly will be closing games? However, if the Nats are to get to the promised land, it will be with their starting pitchers leading the way.