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Washington Nationals’ pitching search: What will Mike Rizzo add to the mix before the start of Spring Training?

With the No. 1 priority (a big bat) acquired, where will GM Mike Rizzo turn next as he builds the Nationals’ roster for 2021 and beyond?

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The acquisition of Josh Bell, in a Christmas Eve deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, gave the Washington Nationals the sort of middle-of-the-lineup bat they were after this offseason, but, GM Mike Rizzo explained after the trade was announced, there is still plenty of work before Spring Training starts.

“This is a big upgrade for us,” Rizzo told reporters of the addition of Bell on a Zoom call late last month, “... and like I said, middle of the lineup presence that we’ve been looking for.

“We never stop trying to improve the club. We certainly won’t this offseason, but this fulfills a big part of our wish list in getting this middle of the lineup bat.”

The addition of Bell, as MLB Network insider Jon Heyman noted on Twitter in a December 29th post, was not necessarily the last middle of the lineup-type bat that Rizzo and Co. were going to add this winter.

Last weekend, the Nationals added another power hitter to the middle of the lineup when they signed slugger Kyle Schwarber to a one-year deal.

“I really like it,” Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez said of the additions in an MLB Network Radio interview on Sunday.

“We got an early Christmas gift with Josh Bell and now we just added Schwarber, so our lineup is looking good.”

While bolstering the offense was the No. 1 priority this winter, and the first thing that Rizzo’s crew jumped on, after attacking what he described as the “fringes” of the roster with some less splashy moves, the GM in D.C. said in mid-December that the club would consider any rotation or bullpen additions that would improve the team’s chances of competing in 2021, two years after a pitching-first club helped them win the World Series.

“It’s no secret that we’re a pitching-oriented team,” Rizzo explained.

“We’ve got three great strong starting pitchers coming back,” with righties Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and lefty Patrick Corbin up top.

“We’ve got a bullpen that we feel is built with a lot of depth and versatility. We’ve got some good veteran guys back there and some good young arms, more on the come, so we felt that our best bet would be to kind of surround the guys we have in the middle of the lineup already with some more bats and make offensive production a little bit more of a priority this offseason.”

But that doesn’t mean they won’t address pitching needs in the rotation and bullpen after adding pitchers like Sam Clay, Joan Adon, Steven Fuentes, Rogelio Armenteros, Matthew Merrill, and Luis Avilán to the mix.

Behind the top three rotation arms are starters like Joe Ross, (who opted out of pitching in the 60-game COVID campaign last season but is going to play this time, as of now), Austin Voth, and Erick Fedde, both of whom struggled in an odd season for everyone in 2020, and, in Rizzo’s assessment, some of the younger prospects who spent last summer working in Fredericksburg, Virginia, trying to continue progressing at the club’s Alternate Training Site as part of the 60-Player pool for the 60-game season.

Will the Nationals add a fourth or fifth starter-type and have Ross fill out the rotation?

Will they stick with Ross, Voth, Fedde, and look for prospects like Jackson Rutledge or Cade Cavalli to fill out their starting mix or try to add a back end starter via trade or free agency?

“We’re not sure right now,” Rizzo said when asked specifically about Ross’s role in the 2021 rotation, the starting mix in general, and potential additions.

“We’ve got a couple of different ways to go, it’s all about asset allocation and I think that the moves that we do early will dictate that rotation move. I have confidence in the depth that we’ve built here as far as back end starters, you know, with kind of an addition of Joe Ross this year and Voth and Fedde, and then those young kids that we had seen in Fredericksburg all season and then in Instructional League — was extremely exciting to see those guys pitch. We’ve seen several guys that are going to help us this year in the big leagues that maybe aren’t household names by the prospects experts, but we saw a handful of guys that are close to impacting the big league roster soon.”

Rutledge and Cavalli are the last two top draft picks by the Nationals, and pitchers like Tim Cate and Matt Cronin made strong impressions in Fredericksburg. Will lesser-known arms like Kyle McGowin or Ben Braymer, both of whom debuted in the majors in 2020 figure in the 2021 bullpen or rotation?

“You’ve got Voth, you’ve got Joe, you’ve got Fedde,” Martinez said when he was asked about the Nationals’ rotation options on the roster in mid-December, “... and a couple other young guys that we’ve got that we’re going to bring to camp.

“I want Joe to be in our starting rotation, you know, so I know he’s doing well, he feels great, and he can’t wait to get back on the mound and get to Spring Training.

“Yeah, it’s wide open for him. I missed him last year, we could have used him last year, but for me, he did what he felt was right and I back him on that, but I’m glad he’s going to be back with us, and like I said, he’s got every opportunity in the world to be whether it’s the fifth starter, whether it’s the fourth starter, who knows, but he’s going to get every opportunity to do that.”

“With those three guys up at the top there,” Martinez said at another point in his December 15th Zoom call, “and Joe and like I said Fedde and you’ve got Voth and who knows who we may end up getting somewhere down the line, I think we have a really good opportunity to repeat what we did in 2019.”