The 2018 Washington Nationals languished to a disappointing season, winning only 82 games and finishing a distant 2nd in the National League East. The combination of several key injuries midseason, coupled with mediocre performance from much of the roster, sent the Nationals to a near worst-case scenario of a season.
Last season Washington’s pitching staff was rather mediocre, finishing 9th in the National League in team ERA (4.04), 7th in strikeouts (1,417), 3rd in walks allowed (487) and 6th in batting average against (.242). These numbers do not compare well with the 2017 staff that finished with a 3.88 ERA, 1,457 strikeouts, 495 walks allowed and a .239 batting average against.
This offseason began swiftly, as General Manager Mike Rizzo traded for Miami reliever Kyle Barraclough and signed former St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal to help overhaul their bullpen. In addition, it was announced manager Dave Martinez and his entire coaching staff will return for 2019.
Washington’s front office now faces a difficult offseason, as the organization faces the difficult challenge of signing Bryce Harper and figuring out how much they can pay him going forward while building a championship club. In addition, the team desperately needs a #3 starter to replace Gio Gonzalez and a starting catcher, plus additional bullpen and bench depth. Finally, there are also significant questions surrounding the 2019 payroll, as the team’s payroll last season exceeded the luxury tax and there are incentives for teams to stay below this figure. Not to mention the continued ambiguity over the team’s television revenue from the dispute involving MASN.
In Part-1 of the 2018-2019 NatsGM Washington Nationals Offseason Manifesto, I have attempted to bolster Washington’s pitching staff while being extremely budget conscious. The team desperately needs a dependable starter behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, but will struggle to sign an expensive free agent considering the salaries already committed to the two long-term. In the bullpen Washington has already made two moves I particularly like, trading for Barraclough and signing Rosenthal, yet they still desperately need a lefty specialist. Finally, I have tried valiantly not to part with any top prospects, as years of trades and small draft bonus pools have depleted a once rich farm system.
In conclusion, in order to make this as realistic as possible, I am assuming Washington is working with an opening day payroll of $185 million in 2019, up slightly from $180 million last year. Therefore, I prioritized keeping the total salary for the pitching staff below $92.5 million, no small feat considering Scherzer and Strasburg combine for $55 million themselves. With all of these factors in mind (and dozens I have failed to mention), here is my 2019 master plan for the Nationals’ pitching staff.
#1 Trade INF Luis Garcia, RHP Jackson Tetreault & RHP Malvin Pena to Toronto for RHP Marcus Stroman
#2 Sign Free Agent LHP Jonny Venters, 1-year $2,750,000 plus a vesting option for 2020
#3 Designate Sammy Solis for Assignment
#1 Max Scherzer $30,000,000
#2 Stephen Strasburg $25,000,000
#3 Marcus Stroman $7,200,000
#4 Tanner Roark $9,500,000
#5 Joe Ross $1,500,000
Salary Total: $ 73,200,000
Max Scherzer is coming off perhaps his finest career season in 2018, which is quite an accomplishment for a 3-time CY Young award winner. He threw 220.2 innings for the Nationals last season, with a 2.53 ERA and 300 strikeouts against only 51 walks. Scherzer has been one of the greatest free agent signings in the history of D.C. sports, and will serve as Washington’s Ace again in 2019.
Injuries caused Stephen Strasburg to make only 22 starts and pitch 130 innings in 2018, providing Washington with a 3.74 ERA and 156 strikeouts against 38 walks. He returned late in the season, but was clearly not the same pitcher in September, as his velocity was down several miles per hour. Strasburg will use this offseason to get fully healthy, and he should be poised for a big season in 2019 if he can avoid the disabled list.
As much as I was loathe to trade prospect depth, Washington needs a dynamic starting pitcher to compliment Scherzer and Strasburg, and Marcus Stroman is the best fit considering his salary, being under team control for two more seasons and his overall risk verses reward. The Blue Jays will want a strong package, likely headlined by infielder Luis Garcia, but Washington and Toronto should match up well in trade discussions.
The 27-year-old Stroman battled through injuries throughout a disappointing 2018, posting a 5.54 ERA and 77 strikeouts over 102.1 innings. However, he is only one year removed from throwing consecutive 200+ innings seasons and establishing himself as one of the better young starters in the American League. Washington drafted Stroman out of high school, and he feels like a perfect “change of scenery” candidate who could blossom outside of the American League East. Washington would be wise to acquire him this winter as their next #3 starter.
Tanner Roark struggled through mechanical issues midseason, but rebounded to provide Washington with another solid year, posting a 4.34 ERA and 146 strikeouts over 180.1 innings pitched. It was a tale of two halves for Roark, who had a 4.87 ERA in the first half and 3.43 ERA in the second. A durable workhorse, this could be the final season in Washington for the 32-year-old, who is a free agent at the end of 2019. That said he should slot in as Washington’s #4 starter next year and solidify the back-end of the rotation.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery in mid-2017, Joe Ross returned to the mound for the Nationals late last season, making 3 starts and throwing 16 innings. Ross, when healthy, has been a productive back-end starter for Washington, producing a 4.01 ERA over 271.1 career innings pitched. He will be on an innings limit in 2019, likely around 125 total innings, so the team will need to be cautious with him, but he should be a nice boost to the back of Washington’s starting rotation.
Serving as starting rotation depth will be minor league prospects Erick Fedde, Kyle McGowin, Jefry Rodriguez and Austin Voth, plus a few minor league free agents Washington will sign this winter.
Closer: Sean Doolittle $6,000,000
8th Inning: Trevor Rosenthal $6,000,000 + Incentives
7th Inning: Kyle Barraclough $1,900,000
RHB Specialist: Justin Miller $575,000
LHB Specialist: Jonny Venters $2,750,000
Middle Relief: Wander Suero $575,000
Long Relief LH: Matt Grace $575,000
Long Relief RH: Erick Fedde $575,000
Salary Total $ 18,950,000
Pitching Staff Total $ 92,150,000
The 32-year-old Sean Doolittle completed his finest professional season in 2018, posting a 1.60 ERA and 60 strikeouts, plus 25 saves, in 45 innings pitched, along with earning a second All-Star game selection. Perhaps most impressively, he allowed only 21 hits and 6 walks all season. The only true knock on Doolittle is his propensity to spend time on the disabled list, but he is one of the best relievers in the National League and should lock down the 9th inning for Washington again in 2019.
Last week Washington kicked off the Hot Stove season by signing Trevor Rosenthal to solidify the bullpen ahead of Doolittle. Rosenthal missed the entire 2018 season following Tommy John surgery in September 2017. Prior to injury, he was one of the best relievers in the National League, posting a 2.99 ERA, 121 saves and 435 strikeouts in his 325 career innings. While his workload will need to be monitored, Rosenthal should be fully healthy by Opening Day as he will be nearly 18 months removed from surgery. He projects as one of the better setup men in baseball.
Acquired several weeks ago from Miami, Kyle Barraclough struggled through an uneven 2018, posting a 4.20 ERA and 60 strikeouts against 34 walks in 55.2 innings. Barraclough was a monster in the first half, allowing only a .124/.254/.217 batting line in 42.1 innings, verses a .361/.486/.667 in the second half. He was placed on the disabled list in August due to a shoulder injury, perhaps explaining the subpar second half. Over his career, Barraclough has a career 3.21 ERA and 279 strikeouts in 218.2 innings. Assuming he is healthy, he should lock down the 7th inning in 2019.
After spending many years slowly climbing the minor league ranks, Wander Suero finally earned a promotion to the majors last season and provided the Nationals a 3.59 ERA and 47 strikeouts over 47.2 innings. Suero’s best pitch is his cutter, which bores into lefties and helps him be equally successful against righties (.728 OPS) as lefties (.707 OPS). In addition, on several occasions Suero pitched multiple innings in an appearance, giving him additional versatility. He should begin the year working in middle relief, but do not be surprised if he throws high-leverage innings next season.
A minor league free agent signing last offseason, Justin Miller was a steadying influence in Washington’s bullpen last season, throwing 52.1 innings and posting a 3.61 ERA and 60 strikeouts against only 17 walks. Interestingly, due to Miller’s closed delivery, the 31-year-old is significantly more effective against righties than lefties, allowing a .631 OPS to righties and a .823 OPS to lefties. Manager Davey Martinez must shield him from left-handed hitters, but as a righty specialist in the middle innings, Miller can be a solid, low-cost piece.
My only move to improve the bullpen would be the signing of LHP Jonny Venters. After missing six years with arm injuries, the 33-year-old returned in 2018 and pitched well for both Tampa and Atlanta, posting a 3.67 ERA over 34.1 innings pitched. Impressively, Venters dominated left-handed hitters last season, holding them to a .133/.200/.200 batting line. For his career, Venters has held lefties to a .516 OPS and has struck out 131 of the 316 hitters he has faced. His extensive injury history is concerning, but Venters would be an ideal fit as a much-needed lefty specialist in Washington’s bullpen.
Quietly Matt Grace had a terrific season in 2018 and was probably Washington’s second best reliever, providing the Nationals with a 2.87 ERA, 1.140 WHIP and 48 strikeouts over 59.2 innings pitched. Impressively, he was equally effective against both lefties and righties, allowing only a .650 OPS to RHBs and a .620 OPS to LHBs. The 29-year-old has yet to reach arbitration so he will earn a minimum salary and see work next season both in middle relief and long relief.
The final spot in the bullpen should go to Erick Fedde, a pitcher I have long thought would be ideal in a 80-100 inning per year relief role. His lack of a changeup hurts his ability to turn over a lineup multiple times, but utilized similarly to an “Opener” in Tampa Bay, Fedde could be a highly effective reliever. However, I expect Washington to use this final spot rather interchangeable all season, with pitchers Austin Adams, Jimmy Cordero, Trevor Gott, Koda Glover, Kyle McGowin, Jefry Rodriguez, Austen Williams and Austin Voth throwing innings throughout 2019.
First, I want to acknowledge the assumptions I am making, as I hypothetically trade for Marcus Stroman and sign free agent Jonny Venters. I believe both moves are plausible and I have gone to great lengths to confirm with others that I am not being a “fan boy”, but I am still playing fantasy GM at the highest level.
Next, I should point out the weaknesses of the fictitious pitching staff I have assembled – Each of the starters, aside from Scherzer, has battled injuries in the past two years and the organization does not have a great deal of starting pitching depth at the upper levels of the minors. The bullpen looks solid on paper and with a renewed priority on velocity, but both Rosenthal and Barraclough have control issues and most of the pitchers have injury concerns. There should be more reliever depth in 2019 than 2018, but the team will need big seasons from Doolittle, Rosenthal and Barraclough to reach the postseason.
That said the starting rotation still has two elite options in Scherzer and Strasburg, along with two solid mid-rotations arms in Roark and Stroman with rebound potential. Furthermore, if Joe Ross can stay healthy, he has been a productive backend starter throughout his career. There is plenty of injury risk, but on paper, this is one of the better rotations in baseball.
Additionally, the bullpen possesses three pitchers with closing experience, three pitchers capable of pitching multiple innings, and several with upper-90s velocity. They are a relatively youthful bunch with plenty of injuries in their past, but there is a nice blend of pitchers with differing specialties and strengths.
In conclusion, I firmly believe this 2019 starting rotation to be superior to the 2018 version, as Stroman has more potential than Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross is an upgrade at the #5 spot. The bullpen is more established and projects to have far more depth than in 2018. Unfortunately I did part with three quality prospects, but I did acquire two low-cost seasons of Stroman, which helped keep the overall pitching staff payroll to $92,150,000. Assuming a reasonable amount of health and overall luck, Washington should have one of the best pitching staffs in the National League in 2019.
Thanks for reading… Please return Wednesday for Part-2, as we retool the Nationals’ offense.