The Washington Nationals entered the 2018-19 offseason with clear holes to fill in their rotation. Gio Gonzalez hit free agency after being traded by the Nats in August and Jeremy Hellickson’s one-year deal expired at the conclusion of the regular season.
With young arms Erick Fedde and Jefry Rodriguez offering little assurance of any long-term stability and Joe Ross likely sitting on an innings limit as he works back from Tommy John surgery, Washington is forced to look outside the organization to fill out the rotation.
The top two starting pitchers on the free-agent market are Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel, both of whom are expected to cost upwards of $20 million a year. Between an MLB.com report linking the Nats to Corbin and The Athletic listing D.C. as one of the best fits for Keuchel, Washington figures to be right in the mix for at least one of them.
Despite the number of contracts they have coming off the books, the Nationals won’t have a ton of money to spend this offseason as they attempt to get under the $206 million luxury tax threshold. As a result, only one of either Corbin or Keuchel could realistically be signed to play in Washington. This begs the question: Which pitcher would the Nats be better off pursuing?
Both starters, despite their pedigrees, have question marks surrounding them. Corbin missed the entire 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John and didn’t finish a full season with an ERA under 4.00 until this past year. Keuchel regressed in 2016 after winning the AL Cy Young award, then battled neck problems in 2017 before a good-not-great 2018 campaign.
Corbin is coming off the better season of the two, posting a 3.15 ERA with 246 strikeouts over 33 starts en route to a fifth-place finish in NL Cy Young voting. His strikeout rate jumped from a career 7.9 K/9 to 11.1 in 2018. Teams should be excited about the fact that he dropped his fastball usage to less than 20 percent and generated most of his swings and misses on sliders and curveballs, a trend that bodes well for his ability to remain effective as he gets older.
While his injury history could make any club weary about handing him a nine-figure deal, the rehab has helped limit the number of innings taxing his arm. Of the 66 active pitchers with at least 1,000 career innings, just six will play next season under the age of 30: Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Julio Teheran, Sonny Gray and Corbin.
Keuchel had a strong season, finishing with a 3.74 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 34 starts, but it was a far cry from his Cy Young year in which he led the AL with a 1.017 WHIP and racked up 20 wins. He was, however, true to his form as a ground ball pitcher. No qualified starter produced grounders at a higher rate (53.7 %) than Keuchel in 2018.
Even with his poor numbers in 2016, Keuchel has still had some strong seasons since his first year as a full-time starter. Over the past five years, only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have finished more seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA and at least 140 innings than the 30-year-old southpaw (three).
However, 140 innings doesn’t constitute a full season and despite his history as a Tommy John recipient, Corbin profiles as a safer bet to stay healthy over the course of a long-term deal. The biggest factor this decision comes down to is money.
As a result of his recent success and relatively young age, Corbin will likely demand more money and years than Keuchel. The Nationals already have over $186 million tied up to Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg over the next three seasons, which could prevent the Nationals from partaking in an expensive bidding war for a starting pitcher.
But if the front office wants to make a splash this offseason and keep Washington in the hunt for the now-competitive NL East crown, Corbin might be a perfect fit. The former second-round pick is trending in the right direction and would be a significant upgrade for the Nationals as they head into an important 2019 season.