The 2017 Washington Nationals enjoyed another successful season, winning 97 games and capturing their 4th National League East division championship in 6 seasons. Certainly yet another Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series to the Cubs leaves a sense of disappointment to the season, but overall, this was another strong year in Washington.
The offseason began swiftly with the surprise decision by Washington not to re-sign Dusty Baker as their manager, choosing instead to hire Chicago bench coach Dave Martinez. Now the front office must look toward 2018 and winning the World Series. The roster seems fairly certain entering the winter, with potentially 20 of 25 roster spots already locked up. However, Washington needs to improve at catcher, find a 5th starter, plus secure depth for their bullpen and bench. Furthermore, there are major questions surrounding payroll for 2018, as continued ambiguity involving the team’s television revenue combined with luxury tax concerns will cap what the franchise will spend this offseason.
Last season Washington’s pitching staff was outstanding, finishing 3rd in the National League in team ERA (3.88), 3rd in strikeouts (1,457), 3rd in walks allowed (495) and 3rd in batting average against (.239). These numbers compare reasonably well against the 2016 staff that finished with a 3.51 ERA, 1,476 strikeouts, 468 walks allowed and a .234 batting average against.
In Part-1 of this year’s NatsGM 2018 Washington Nationals Offseason Manifesto, I have attempted to solidify Washington’s pitching staff while being extremely budget conscious. In the rotation, I decided to keep the four “studs” Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, while finding a dependable 5th starter with some upside to provide innings. For the bullpen, I broker a fictitious trade for a hard-throwing reliever with closing experience to pair with Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson in the late innings. Finally, I did not want to deplete the farm system and hoped to give top prospect Erick Fedde more time in the minors.
In conclusion, in order to make this realistic, I am assuming Washington will have a $175 million payroll in 2018, up from $164.3 million in 2017. Therefore, I prioritized keeping the total salary for pitchers below $85 million, no small feat considering Scherzer and Strasburg make a combined $40 million themselves. With these factors in mind, here is my master plan for the 2018 pitching staff.
A) Sign RHP Scott Feldman, 1-yr $2,250,000
B) Trade OF Brian Goodwin & 3B Kelvin Gutierrez to Detroit for RHP Shane Greene
SP1 – Max Scherzer $22,143,000
SP2 – Stephen Strasburg $18,334,000
SP3 – Gio Gonzalez $12,000,000
SP4 – Tanner Roark $7,500,000
SP5 – (Scott Feldman) $2,250,000
Max Scherzer was again spectacular in 2017, giving Washington 200.2 innings with a 16-6 record, a 2.51 ERA and 268 strikeouts against only 55 walks. He is one of three finalists, along with teammate Stephen Strasburg, for the National League Cy Young Award and should front the Nationals’ rotation again in 2018.
As mentioned, Stephen Strasburg was also fantastic for the Nationals last season, providing the team with a 15-4 record, a 2.52 ERA and 204 strikeouts over 175.1 innings pitched. He battled some injuries midseason and during the playoffs, but overcame these obstacles to pitch fantastically in the postseason, throwing 14 shutout innings. The 29-year-old will look to build on this tremendous season in 2018.
Following a subpar 2016, Gio Gonzalez rebounded with a brilliant season in 2017, giving Washington a 15-9 record with a 2.96 ERA, 1.179 WHIP and 188 strikeouts over 201 innings pitched. Unfortunately his difficulties during the NLDS will tarnish his season as a whole, but fans should not ignore the outstanding regular season Gonzalez completed. He is under contract for one last season in Washington, and 2018 should see him return to anchor the middle of the team’s rotation.
Tanner Roark battled through a difficult 2017, posting an unusually high 4.67 ERA and 1.335 WHIP, with 166 strikeouts against 64 walks in 181.1 innings. Roark was selected but seldom used in the WBC last spring, which seemed to cause him to struggle early in the season and never fully find his rhythm. In addition, he was chosen for the Nationals’ postseason roster, but did not make an appearance during the NLDS. Hopefully the difficulties of 2017 help Roark rebound to his normal self in 2018.
For the 5th starter spot, I prioritized (in order) salary demands, durability, experience and reason to hope for improved performance – with this in mind, I would seek to sign free agent righty Scott Feldman to a 1-year contract worth $2.25 million plus incentives.
Feldman struggled through a difficult campaign in 2017 with Cincinnati, providing the Reds with a 4.77 ERA, 1.356 WHIP and 93 strikeouts verses 35 walks in 21 starts and 111.1 innings pitched. In addition, his season ended prematurely due to a knee injury. However, a closer look at the numbers shows Feldman had a 3.98 ERA through 18 starts and 102.2 innings pitched before his last three starts destroyed his ERA (8 home runs allowed in 8.2 innings, 14.54 ERA total) – perhaps this was directly due to the oncoming knee injury? Also, his velocity dropped more than 2mph from April to August, giving further credence to the injury affecting his performance.
For his career, Feldman has a 78-84 record, with a 4.43 ERA over nearly 1,400 major league innings, while pitching both as a starter and reliever. He owns a career ERA+ of 97, with 100 being major league average. He is, almost by definition, a league average major league starting pitcher and his subpar numbers last season could allow him to be overlooked this winter. Feldman is not a star, but he should provide Washington with nearly league average numbers on a modest salary. And if one of Washington’s young starters emerges during the season, Feldman can easily be placed in the bullpen.
Starting pitching depth should be provided by A.J. Cole and top prospect Erick Fedde, both of whom had impressive moments in the majors last season. Additionally, Joe Ross should return sometime late in 2018 to perhaps bolster the pitching staff down the stretch. Finally, I anticipate Washington aggressively hunting non-roster invitees all offseason.
Closer – Sean Doolittle $4,380,000
Stopper – Ryan Madson $7,667,000
7th inning – Shane Greene $1,700,000
Middle Relief – Shawn Kelley $5,500,000
LHP – Enny Romero $550,000
LHP – Matt Grace / Sammy Solis $550,000
Long – A.J. Cole $550,000
Pitching Total: $83,127,000
Acquired via midseason trade with Oakland, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson solidified the back of Washington’s bullpen upon arrival. Doolittle provided Washington with a 2.40 ERA and 31 strikeouts over 30 innings pitched, along with 21 saves. Madson was arguably even better, posting a 1.37 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 19.2 innings. The 37-year-old Madson’s age is a concern, as is the fact that both pitchers have had injuries in the past, but the duo should again be a lethal combination in the 8th and 9th innings next season.
My major acquisition for the bullpen this winter involves trading for Detroit’s Shane Greene, a 29-year-old right-handed pitcher blessed with a mid-90s sinker and a nasty slider. Greene spent many years in the Yankee organization before a trade to Detroit, and a shift to the bullpen, revitalized his career. He has accumulated 2.1 WAR over 211.2 innings the past three years, along with 11 saves. Greene’s experience as a closer, solid results as a reliever and likely availability due to Detroit’s current rebuild, make him a tremendous potential addition to Washington’s bullpen.
After many consecutive seasons of quality pitching, Shawn Kelley endured a nightmarish season in 2017, posting a 7.27 ERA and allowing 12 home runs in only 26 innings pitched. In his defense, he looked injured all season and made several trips to the disabled list. He had a stem cell injection early in the offseason and hopes to be healthy for spring training. The 33-year-old’s salary nearly guarantees him a place in the bullpen next season and a healthy Kelley would provide a major boost to the relief corps. He is a true “X-Factor” for the 2018 pitching staff.
Returning for his second season in Washington will be flame-throwing LHP Enny Romero, who was acquired in a minor deal last winter and pitched well for the Nationals. Romero provided Washington with a 3.56 ERA and 65 strikeouts against 25 walks over 55.2 innings pitched. Surprisingly, he was better against righties than lefties (.295 wOBA v .354), so expect manager Dave Martinez to utilize him as a weapon in the middle innings against hitters who struggle against premium velocity.
In a competition for the final lefty in the bullpen, I will let holdovers Matt Grace and Sammy Solis fight for the spot during spring training. Grace pitched well last season for the Nationals, with a 4.32 ERA and 61.1% ground ball ratio over 50 innings. He was particularly good against lefties, allowing only a .232/.315/.235 batting line last season. On the other hand, Solis failed to repeat his strong 2016 campaign with a 5.88 ERA and 4.35 xFIP in 2017. I tend to prefer Grace due to his outstanding numbers against lefties and ability to pitch multiple innings, although I believe Solis to have superior stuff. This should be a competitive battle, with the loser likely traded late during spring training.
Rounding out the bullpen will be A.J. Cole, Washington’s 4th round pick in 2010. Cole showed promise in 2017, posting a 3.81 ERA over 52 innings pitched. Particularly impressively, Cole dominated right-handed hitters, allowing an .188/.286/.315 batting line last season. His ability to neutralize righties, combined with his extensive past as a starting pitcher, make him a solid fit as a long reliever.
Providing bullpen depth for Washington in 2018 will be Austin Adams and Koda Glover, who saw big league time last year, along with minor leaguers Wander Suero and Phillips Valdez. In addition, Washington has done well with non-roster invitees in recent years and I would expect them to be aggressive in signing a few this winter – high on my list would be Neftali Feliz, Chad Qualls and Tom Wilhelmsen.
First, I must acknowledge the assumptions I am making, as I am hypothetically trading for Shane Greene and signing free agent Scott Feldman. I believe both moves are plausible and have checked with others I respect to confirm this belief, but I am still playing fantasy GM at the highest (or worst) level.
With that said, next I should point out the weaknesses of this pitching staff – Each of the starters has battled nagging injuries the past two seasons and the depth behind these five is young and unproven. The bullpen looks solid on paper, with several throwing mid-to-upper 90s velocity, yet Doolittle, Madson and Greene have injury concerns and Shawn Kelley is a major wild card entering spring training.
Nevertheless, the starting rotation has two elite options in Scherzer and Strasburg, along with two solid mid-rotation arms in Gonzalez and Roark. If Feldman can bounce back and provide a boost as the 5th starter, this rotation could again be one of the best in the National League. The bullpen has three closing options, three lefties for matchup possibilities and a collective group with differing styles. Health questions aside, this hypothetical pitching staff has a nice blend of veterans and youngsters.
In conclusion, I believe this 2018 starting rotation should be comparable to last year’s, with the hope Erick Fedde blossoms into an impact pitcher during the season. The bullpen is far more established than last season, and has several interesting arms to pitch in the middle innings. Finally I did not part with any top prospects and limited the pitching staff payroll to $83.1 million. Assuming a reasonable amount of health and overall luck, there is no reason Washington does not have a top-5 pitching staff in the National League next season.
Thanks for reading… Please return Wednesday for Part-2, as we retool the Nationals’ offense.