Strasburg and Corbin (and Ross):
Pitching and defense.
“Obviously you guys know that I strongly believe in pitching and defense,” Davey Martinez said in the winter of 2020-21.
“But without starting pitching it’s hard to win championships, we proved that in 2019.”
The need for improved starting pitching is something that Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office identified as an obvious area of need for improvement this winter when the GM spoke with reporters at the end of the regular season.
“For eleven years, when we were a championship-caliber club, we had starting pitchers that led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts, and wins,” he said, “and that’s how we built our championship clubs.”
“I think the pitching definitely has to improve,” Rizzo added at another point in his season-ending meeting with reporters.
“This game is built on pitching, it’s built on starting pitching for me, and we have to get better in that aspect for sure.”
The Nationals will need three pitchers already in the organization to return to form though, if they’re going to get back to the sort of starting pitching that helped them on their run in the last decade.
Stephen Strasburg, heading into the third year of his 7-year/$245M contract, has made just seven starts and thrown just 26 2⁄3 innings since he signed the free agent deal coming off a 2019 campaign in which he helped the club win the first World Series by a D.C. based team since 1924, and earned a World Series MVP nod. In the last two seasons, however, the now-33-year-old 2009 No. 1 overall pick has dealt with a variety of injury issues, including carpal tunnel neuritis (2020) and neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome (2021) which led to surgery in each of the past two seasons.
Patrick Corbin, 32, and heading into the fourth year of his 6-year/$140M deal with the club, has struggled in the past two seasons, after strong years in 2018-19, and though he and the team think he sorted things out late this past season, he’s got a lot to prove in 2022.
Joe Ross, 28, has dealt with numerous injury issues over the last few years as well, including a torn ulnar collateral ligament which led to Tommy John surgery in 2017, and he had his ‘21 campaign end in August when he suffered a partial tear of the UCL in his right elbow, but it wasn’t bad enough to require another TJS, so the hope is that he’ll be ready to return to the mound in 2022.
The Nats need all three to contribute to the cause if their starting rotation is going to be a strength once again, since they do have significant money ($35M, $11.4M deferred for the third year of Strasburg’s deal and $23M for Corbin) invested in the top of their rotation.
“I think that it’s a reasonable expectation that Strasburg and Patrick and Ross have to pitch more effectively and more often for us to quicken this reboot,” Rizzo said in early October, “... but this thing is built on starting pitching, starting pitching depth, and that’s what we’re trying to obtain via free agency, draft, and that type of thing like we have in the past.”
When he spoke with MLB Network High Heat host Christopher Russo this weekend, the GM provided updates on two of the three pitchers, starting with Strasburg.
“He’s probably the biggest question mark that we have going into this thing,” Rizzo said.
“Probably one of the most important players on the roster that we need to see where he’s at, but he feels good, he’s in a good spot right now, he began throwing this month, and he feels, and we feel, and the medical team feels that he should be full-go by Spring Training, and we’re hoping that he gets back to the pre-COVID form, and gives us 30-32 starts again like he has in the past, and can kind of carry what’s going to be a very young and exciting starting rotation.”
And Corbin, who’s been able to stay healthy, but has struggled with his mechanics, and his location, giving up an NL-leading and career-high 37 home runs in 171 2⁄3 IP last season, will have to sort things out and get back to being the pitcher the Nationals signed before their championship run in 2019.
“You know the good thing about Patrick is his stuff is still good,” Rizzo explained. “His stuff, velocity, spin-rate, the angle of his pitchers are all back to ‘18-’19 levels at the end of the season. It was more of a mechanical and certainly a location thing for Patrick. He gave up an inordinate amount of home runs this year. That needs to be addressed. I think that the glass half-full scenario is his stuff was good, he was 94-96 there at the end of the season, and his last 4-5 starts he showed signs of being back to the 2018-19 Patrick Corbin, so we’re looking forward to him taking the next step in that progression and returning to the form that helped us win the World Series, and he was a key part of it.”