New Washington Nationals' pitching coach Mike Maddux talked glowingly earlier this winter about the starting rotation he is inheriting from former pitching coach Steve McCatty. I think it's safe to say that Maddux, who comes with a strong reputation of his own, is impressed with the collection of arms lined up to start for the Nationals this season.
"I like the inventory," Maddux said. "What an inventory of arms over here, man. I look at a rotation that features Max Scherzer up top, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross, Tanner Roark, you know everybody's got their own schtick going on there: One guy is pitching with two colored eyes. Another guy is pitching with his ears out there. And you've got the one lefty in there and you've got the younger brother of another guy out there and then you've got old Tanner that just came out of nowhere a couple of years ago wins fifteen ballgames and then goes and sits on his thumb last year out in the bullpen, so it's a very interesting mix of what we have."
It's going to be hard for those on the outside to crack the starting rotation, barring any injuries [crosses fingers] or any other issues to the expected starting five of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark, but here are the starters on the 40-Man roster who are reporting to Spring Training tomorrow for the official start of the 2016 campaign and hoping to make an impression on new Nats' skipper Dusty Baker, Maddux and the rest of the Nationals' staff. We'll follow up with the relievers and the non-roster invitees over the next twenty-four hours...
• A.J. Cole - 24 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: AAA - (5-6), 21 G, 19 GS, 105 ⅔ IP, 3.15 ERA, 3.90 FIP, 34 walks (2.90 BB/9), 76 Ks (6.47 K/9); MLB - (0-0), 3 G, 1 GS, 9 ⅓ IP, 5.79 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 1 BB (0.96 BB/9), 9 Ks (8.68 K/9).
A.J. Cole, the Nationals' 2010 4th Round pick, who was traded to the Oakland A's and reacquired by the Nationals, has been around for a while, but is still just 24 years old.
Cole got his first opportunity to pitch in the majors last season, in a rough outing against the Braves in Atlanta which saw him give up nine hits and nine runs, four earned in just two innings, but he returned to the majors in May and made two appearances out of the bullpen with better results.
Cole told reporters this winter that he was working to add weight to help him with his stamina and help him deal with what it takes to get through a full season of work. He acknowledged then that it was going to be tough to crack the starting rotation.
"I've always been trying and keeping up and when they call on me I'm always trying to be ready for it," Cole said.
In ranking Cole no.6 on his list of the top prospects in the Nationals' organization, ESPN.com's Keith Law wrote that Cole is his, "... pick for the first starter recalled when there's a need for one," in the Nats' rotation.
A.J. Cole on mechanical adjustment he made late last season: "It was just one of things things that there was a glitch and I couldn't figure it out at first and I got it down and I really feel like from here on it will all be good. Working on the little things, mobility, strength, everything like that."
• Gio Gonzalez - 30 yo, LHP - 2015 Stats: (11-8), 31 G, 31 GS, 175 ⅔ IP, 3.79 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 69 walks (3.54 BB/9), 169 Ks (8.66 K/9), .264/.336/.374 line against, 3.7 fWAR.
Gio Gonzalez's fourth campaign in the nation's capital saw the southpaw experiment with becoming more of a ground ball pitcher, as he explained to reporters early in the season. Gonzalez focused on working in his two-seamer more than he had before and saw his ground ball rate rise from 44.8% in 2014 (and a 47.7% career average) to 53.8% on the year.
As he explained this winter, however, he got what he thought were mixed results:
"You can take it with a grain of salt, I mean, it worked out good, because it's ground balls," Gonzalez explained, "but then ERA? It didn't add up for me, so maybe I stick to pop ups or something like that. I don't know. But I definitely want to work on improving my strikeouts and just [sticking] to my game plan. What I used to do was attack the strike zone and try not to beat around the bush. Go after these hitters and let them put the ball in play and let my defense help out as much as possible."
Gonzalez is under contract for $12M this season, with club options at $12M (or a $500K buyout) in 2017 and $12M in 2018. Could this end up being Gonzalez's final season in D.C.?
• Taylor Jordan - 27 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: AAA - (5-6), 19 G, 19 GS, 103 ⅔ IP, 2.95 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 27 walks (2.34 BB/9), 61 Ks (5.30 K/9); MLB - (0-2), 4 G, 1 GS, 17 IP, 5.29 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 6 walks (3.18 BB/9), 11 Ks (5.82 K/9).
Taylor Jordan made four appearances and one start for the Nationals in 2015, after debuting in the majors in 2013 and making five starts for the Nationals in 2014 before he was optioned out to Triple-A Syracuse. He was eventually shut down due to an elbow issue that season and underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow that fall.
Jordan returned to the mound and made 19 starts at Triple-A last season and four appearances in the majors, one as a starter.
Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo talked about Jordan and A.J. Cole as part of the starting depth the Nats will rely on this year, but when Jordan was asked if he had proven himself and deserved a shot at a rotation spot this season, he said it was more a matter of luck and timing than deserving anything.
"I don't think that there's a turn to get a shot," Jordan explained. "I think whoever is -- it's almost like a luck game.
"Whoever is doing well. Whoever is in the slot to go, cause if I've just pitched, I'm not eligible to pitch tomorrow. So a little bit of luck is involved and whoever is hot right now."
Asked what he has to work on or improve, Jordan said he was working on his overall conditioning.
"There's always something to improve," he said. "Right now I'm focusing on stretching, flexibility and forearm and shoulder strength to get me through the season with minimal soreness."
• Tanner Roark - 29 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: (4-7), 1 SV, 40 G, 12 GS, 111 IP, 4.38 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 26 walks (2.11 BB/9), 70 Ks (5.68 K/9), .285/.337/.447 line against (as a starter), -0.2 fWAR.
The decision to move Tanner Roark to the bullpen after the Nationals signed Max Scherzer last winter didn't exactly work out well for the right-hander, who never really settled into a role and then struggled when called upon to start.
Going into the 2016 campaign, Roark has a big backer in the Nats' new pitching coach Mike Maddux, who talked about the righty when he met with reporters at Nationals WinterFest.
Maddux was asked then if he saw Roark as part of the starting rotation again?:
"I would anticipate that," he said. "Why not? It's his job to lose. I mean, he's come out of, like I said, nowhere a couple of years ago and won 15 ballgames and then there were some acquisitions and some health -- that there was some resurgence of guys added to the roster last year that kind of knocked him out. But you've got to admire a guy like him, holy cow. I mean, talk about the typical blue collar layman that goes out and wins fifteen ballgames and makes a little notch in his belt for him. That's pretty good. Easy to root for, and I'm rooting for him big time."
Can Roark jump back into a starting role with more ease than he transitioned to the bullpen?
Through 24 major league starts, he has a 3.17 ERA, a 3.77 FIP, 57 walks (1.74 BB/9) and 195 Ks (5.95 K/9) in 295 IP, over which he's held opposing hitters to a combined .245/.290/.370 line.
• Joe Ross - 22 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: AA - (2-2), 9 G, 9 GS, 51 ⅓ IP, 2.81 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 12 walks (2.10 BB/9), 54 Ks (9.47 K/9); AAA - (3-1), 5 G, 5 GS, 24 ⅔ IP, 2.19 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 7 walks (2.55 BB/9), 15 Ks (5.47 K/9); MLB - (5-5), 16 G, 13 GS, 76 ⅔ IP, 3.64 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 21 walks (2.47 BB/9), 69 Ks (8.10 K/9), .221/.281/.355 line against as a starter, 1.4 fWAR.
Called up from Double-A to make his major league debut last summer, Joe Ross, who was acquired from the San Diego Padres along with top infield prospect Trea Turner, was one of the big surprises for the Nationals in 2015.
The Padres' 2011 1st Round pick is pencilled in as part of the Nationals' rotation this season after a strong run in his first campaign in the organization.
In his 51 ⅓ innings in the majors, he was mostly a two-pitch pitcher with a sinker/slider combination that he used to hold opposing hitters to a combined .221/.281/.355 line. Major league hitters had just a .135 AVG against the right-hander's slider.
Ross was asked this winter if he was surprised how far he went in his first season with the Nationals?
"I wouldn't say surprised," Ross explained. "It was kind of like my goal, I guess, going into last year, was hopefully getting called up. I can only do so much to control that, you kind of have to have the pieces fall into place. But I'm obviously really happy with how last year went and it will be interesting I guess to see what happens this year coming into Spring Training and stuff like that."
Can the 22-year-old starter, who will turn 23 in May, reproduce his results from 2015? Will he be able to develop his changeup to give him another weapon? How will he react to adjustments hitters make when they have better scouting reports and are more familiar with his stuff?
• Max Scherzer - 31 yo RHP - 2015 Stats: (14-12), 33 G, 33 GS, 228 ⅔ IP, 2.79 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 34 walks (1.34 BB/9), 276 Ks (10.86 K/9), .205/.242/.358 line against, 6.4 fWAR.
Two no-hitters, the lowest ERA of his career, the second-lowest FIP, the highest fWAR season of his eight major league seasons, highest K total (276) and second-highest K/9 (10.86) of his career...
It's safe to say that Max Scherzer's first season in the nation's capital was a success... in a way, but there were also some problems, like his home run totals in the second half of the season, for example.
As has been well-documented, Scherzer, who allowed 10 HRs in 132 IP in the first-half, gave up 17 HRs in 96 ⅔ IP in the second-half of his first season in D.C.
Scherzer told reporters this winter he's been focused on what led to the increased home run totals since it became an issue late last season. He said he has ideas of what he can do to keep the ball in the yard, but as he explained, it's all in theory at this point, and he's looking forward to getting back on the mound and testing the theories out.
It's something I took seriously, and really thought about different things I can do differently and how I can pitch differently, against the same hitters and things I need to work on," Scherzer said. "Those are things, even in October I was thinking about those things."
He did, also, take some time this winter to think about just how special the two no-hitters last season really were.
"They're each special in their own way, really getting to reflect on them, and really having that Mets one be the last start of the season, even though we had a disappointing season, it was a way to end the year on a good note. And really gives you a positive feedback for what you want to do going into 2016. I can't sit there and say there's one moment within those games that I cherish the most, I think it's just the ability to go out there and have those type of games, and have your teammates behind your back playing as hard as you can and doing it all as one."
• Stephen Strasburg - 27 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: (11-7), 23 G, 23 GS, 127 ⅓ IP, 3.46 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 26 walks (1.83 BB/9), 155 Ks (10.96 K/9), .233/.278/.375 line against, 3.4 fWAR.
Though he dealt with an ankle injury that he sustained in Spring Training which led to altered mechanics and a rough start to the season, Stephen Strasburg straightened things out and put up impressive numbers after his first DL stint last season.
In 13 starts and 82 IP after he missed close to a month in late-May/June, the Nationals' '09 no.1 overall pick put up a 1.76 ERA, 12 walks (1.32 BB/9) and 110 Ks (12.07 K/9) while holding opposing hitters to a combined .175/.208/.292 line.
If Strasburg can reproduce those numbers this season, he's going to set himself up nicely to cash in as a free agent next winter.
Going into what could be his final season in D.C., the now-27-year-old right-hander has a 3.09 ERA, a 2.83 FIP, 2.22 BB/9 and 10.44 K/9 as a starter through 776 ⅔ major league innings pitched.
He talked this winter about how the injury issues last season affected him, finishing strong and how he's hoping to avoid injuries this Spring as he prepares for the 2016 campaign.
"It was just unfortunate that an ankle injury in Spring just threw everything off mechanically and I really just needed to give it a little more time to heal," he explained.
"So, my arm felt great, strong all year and everything is still feeling good, so I'm really not going to chance anything besides really not doing some exercises in the gym that might cause a severe ankle sprain."
GM Mike Rizzo was asked in an MLB Network Radio interview this winter what he expects from Strasburg in 2016?
"I think he's on the cusp of doing something special," Rizzo said. "I think that when the ankle problems were behind him -- which turned into some muscular problems in his back and that type of thing -- he pitched outstanding. He's had three outstanding years before he had that little hiccup in the beginning of 2015, but this guy is a terrifically-talented pitcher that I think has matured not only in his life but on the mound and is becoming a real leader, not only in the clubhouse, but a guy I love when he takes the ball every fifth day."
Enjoy Strasburg while you can, Nationals fans, this could be his final season in D.C.