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Washington Nationals offseason needs: Rotation

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Free agency is technically under way, but we probably won't see much movement in the market until the twenty players who were tendered qualifying offers make their decisions. What should the Nats priorities be this offseason? Today we'll look at the Nats rotation and see if there's anyone they should be looking into.

Tanner Roark was tremendous as a starter in 2014, but he was the definition of mediocrity as a swing man in 2015. Can the Nats depend on him returning to form at the back of the rotation next year?
Tanner Roark was tremendous as a starter in 2014, but he was the definition of mediocrity as a swing man in 2015. Can the Nats depend on him returning to form at the back of the rotation next year?
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals have already made quite a bit of noise this offseason. One day after the 2015 season ended, the Nats fired Matt Williams and the entire coaching staff. They've since hired Dusty Baker as their new manager and are surrounding him with a star-studded staff that (so far) includes Mike Maddux, Davey Lopes, and Chris Speier. While the Nats still have some other spots that they need to fill on the coaching staff, it's time to cast a glance at the personnel on the roster and see which areas the Nats will likely be looking to improve this offseason.

Let's begin the process by taking a look at the remaining players on the forty man roster now that all players who were eligible to become free agents have been removed. Some holes have certainly been created with the (expected) departures of Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Casey Janssen, Nate McLouth, Denard Span, Matt Thornton, Dan Uggla, and Jordan Zimmermann.

Position Pitchers B/T
RP Aaron Barrett R-R
RP David Carpenter R-R
SP/RP A.J. Cole R-R
RP Erik Davis R-R
RP Abel De Los Santos R-R
SP Gio Gonzalez R-L
RP Matt Grace L-L
SP/RP Taylor Hill R-R
SP/RP Taylor Jordan R-R
RP Rafael Martin R-R
RP Jonathan Papelbon R-R
RP Felipe Rivero L-L
SP/RP Tanner Roark R-R
SP Joe Ross R-R
SP Max Scherzer R-R
RP Sammy Solis R-L
RP Craig Stammen R-R
RP Drew Storen S-R
SP Stephen Strasburg R-R
RP Blake Treinen R-R
C Jose Lobaton S-R
C Wilson Ramos R-R
C Pedro Severino R-R
2b/SS Wilmer Difo S-R
2b/SS/3b? Yunel Escobar R-R
2b/SS Danny Espinosa S-R
1b/LF Tyler Moore R-R
2b/3b Anthony Rendon R-R
1b/LF Clint Robinson L-L
SS Trea Turner R-R
1b Ryan Zimmerman R-R
OF Matt den Dekker L-L
OF Brian Goodwin L-R
OF Bryce Harper L-R
OF Michael Taylor R-R
OF Jayson Werth R-R

Let's break down the roster a bit more in-depth than the simple list above, though. Let's see if we can find the spots  where the Nats have the most opportunities for improvement. Since these figure to run pretty long, we'll break it down into several pieces. Today, we're going to look at the Nats rotation options and determine whether they should be looking into options on the open market.

Rotation

Sure Things Probable Other Cadidates
Max Scherzer Tanner Roark A.J. Cole
Stephen Strasburg Joe Ross Taylor Jordan
Gio Gonzalez Taylor Hill

Scherzer and Strasburg figure to be a formidable one-two punch atop the rotation. Gio saw his ERA spike up more than 0.20 runs for the second straight season, but did manage an ERA below 4.00 for the sixth straight season (his 3.79 ERA was his worst since 2009, though). As long as Gio is being slotted in as a middle of the rotation arm instead of being expected to anchor the staff, he's just fine. The loss of Zimmermann probably takes the Nats from having one of the top five "front threes" in the game to somewhere near the back of the top ten. The question marks come after that.

Roark was phenomenal late in 2013 and throughout 2014, but struggled badly as a swing-man in 2015. Given the success that Roark had in the rotation in 2014, it's hard to imagine him not being a favorite for a rotation spot in 2016. Still, Roark's minor league track record should give Mike Rizzo some pause when he's determining which one of the past two seasons was the outlier. From 2010-2012, Roark's ERA in the high minors was 4.20 or higher in each season, yet the immediate instinct (as fans) is to think that he just has to be the guy that we saw dominate in 2014. While some of that 2014 improvement was surely real progression, there's enough of a track record showing so that his 2015 performance seems more in line with what we'd expect from a player with his minor league profile.

Ross was a revelation in 2015. Acquired as the supposed secondary piece in the Trea Turner deal, the 22-year-old thoroughly dominated the AA and AAA levels. A Stephen Strasburg injury opened the door for Ross to debut in the majors. He pitched so well that he eventually supplanted Doug Fister as the fifth starter. Ross went on to finish the season with a 3.64 ERA (3.42 FIP), a 1.11 WHIP, and an outstanding 69:21 strikeout to walk ratio in 76 innings with the Nats. Ross would certainly appear to be a favorite to begin 2016 in the big league rotation, but it could make sense to have a strong Plan B in place in case the youngster struggles in his second turn through the league.

It would be easy to dismiss A.J. Cole as an option for the 2016 rotation based on his major league production in 2015, but that would also seem like an unfair way to judge him. Cole was horrific in his lone big league start (most of us remember the Huggla game), but did pitch fairly well in his two appearances later in the year out of the bullpen. He also turned in a solid, if unspectacular, season in Syracuse. In AAA, Cole managed a 3.15 ERA (3.90 FIP), a 1.18 WHIP, and a 76:34 strikeout to walk ratio in 105 innings. He certainly doesn't look like he'll reach the ceiling the Nats envisioned for him when they drafted him in 2010, but there's still an outside shot he develops into a middle of the rotation starter.

Taylor Jordan showed significant improvement in AAA this season, but it's hard to consider him more than organizational depth (at least as a starter) at this point. Jordan will turn 27 in January and hasn't managed to stick in any of his three chances at the big league level. He's a nice guy to have in AAA who can come up and make a spot start at a moment's notice, but he's not the type of pitcher that the Nats should even consider relying on taking a regular turn in the rotation. The same applies to Taylor Hill.

The Longshot

After spending about half of the 2015 campaign at Harrisburg, we can probably expect for top prospect Lucas Giolito to begin the 2016 season there as well. Between A+ and AA, Giolito had a 3.15 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP, and a 131:37 strikeout to walk ratio in 117 innings. While his numbers at Harrisburg (3.80 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) might not blow many fans out of the water, he was quite young for the league (4.6 years below league average) and acquitted himself well in his first crack at the high minors. It would be less than surprising to see Giolito at some point next season, but it's doubtful that he'll begin the year with the big club.

Needs?

I love the minor league depth of Giolito, Erick Fedde, and Reynaldo Lopez as pitchers who may (in some cases almost certainly will) be key pieces of the Nats rotation in 2017-18 and beyond. What I'm not a big fan of is the depth of options in the high minors and at the back of the rotation for the 2016 season. Roark and Ross both seem like gambles to be as effective in 2016 as they have been in the recent past (for Roark, 2014... for Ross, 2015). Backing those two (and any [gasp] injury to another starter) up in the high minors, the Nats have A.J. Cole and a bunch of other guys who probably shouldn't be trusted to make more than an emergency spot start in the majors. With two options who pose a significant risk and a questionable Plan B, it would make sense for the Nats to try and go after a short-term back of the rotation type.

There are a variety of options out there who could be good fits on a short term deal, most of whom we'll look at after we move past which positions of need the Nats should be prioritizing.

  • The Nats could try and go the safe route and go after a guy like Bartolo Colon, Colby Lewis, or Ryan Vogelsong. These are guys who wouldn't present the Nats with a lot of upside, but they would also seem to be less likely to be major busts either.
  • The Nats could also try and go after a boom or bust option who could turn out to be much more than the Nats bargain for. Mat Latos, Justin Masterson, and Brandon Morrow come to mind as guys who have produced at elite levels in the past, but are hitting free agency after either poor and/or injury-plagued seasons. Those are players who could well outperform expectations, but they're also entail a bit more risk than the steady/average production of players like Colon, Lewis, or Vogelsong.
  • Finally, they could shock us all and go after one of the (many) big name starters out on the market this offseason. The Nats did just have more than $50 million come off the books with the free agents that they lost, and Stephen Strasburg is only under contract for one more season. If Mike Rizzo doesn't feel confident that he'll be able to re-sign Strasburg, it could make sense to make another splash in free agency this year. I think we're all pretty clear on who someone at Federal Baseball wants them to go after, but Greinke is certainly not the only option.

I'd kind of like to see the Nats go with the option outlined in the middle. The way I see it, they currently have three risky options for those back two spots. Toss in a fourth (still risky) option and I feel like I'd be more comfortable that they can hold down the fort at the back of the rotation until Giolito is ready. I'd much rather see the Nats take a chance on a guy like Latos who has the upside to be a pleasant surprise than one of the safer one year fixes. I also think that the Nats have significant enough investments I'd like to see them make elsewhere so that I'd prefer not to see them spend $100 million on a pitcher again this offseason. It'll be interesting to see whether they try and patch the rotation up somehow or just roll with Roark and Ross at the back end, though.