The Washington Nationals and elite starting pitching have become synonymous with each other over the last 10 years.
General Manager, Mike Rizzo, has always made a point of pushing a large number of his chips into a strong and reliable starting rotation. It’s no different in 2021 with another group that has as impressive a resume as any in the big leagues.
The abilities of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin need no introduction to Nationals fans and they will once again make up one of the best trios of starters in the majors.
And to stay in keeping with his modus operandi, Rizzo added veteran left-hander, Jon Lester, to his stable of horses in the rotation on a one-year, $5 million deal in January to serve as the team’s fourth starter, filling the role that Aníbal Sánchez held the last two years.
Much like Sánchez when he came to the nation’s capital, Lester is no longer the pitcher he once was. Expectations for him are much lower, taking some of the pressure off his shoulders and allowing him to settle into his new role behind the team’s top starters.
“I tell you what, it’s going to be nice to just kind of sit back and watch these guys work,” Lester said shortly after signing with the team in January.
“Obviously I’ve seen them from afar and got to compete against them for a long time, and I’m excited to work with them.
“It’s always nice when you go to another team and you get to see how guys work. I’m excited for that. Get to see how they prepare for each start.”
As someone who has played the vast majority of his career with two teams in the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, having a change in scenery in the rotation and being able to pick the brains of a new set of pitchers is something the left-hander is also looking forward to.
“Obviously I’ve gotten to know Scherzer a little bit over the years,” Lester explained. “I don’t really know [Strasburg] and Patrick that well yet, look forward to that.
“I’m just excited to kind of dig into their minds and see how they prepare and really just stay out of the way. I want to be kind of a fly on the wall with this rotation and just try to help out the best that I can.”
Lester got the chance to work with his new rotation-mates for the first time on Thursday as the team held their first pitchers and catchers' workout of the year and no doubt began to have those conversations with them.
Although it’s early in the process, Rizzo is already happy with how Lester is starting to fit into his group of starting pitchers, giving an “iron sharpens iron” mentality to this year’s rotation.
“I kind of like that dynamic of having a bunch of alpha-males in the rotation,” the GM told reporters on Thursday.
It’s not the first time that the Nationals have had that pedigree in their rotation, nor will it be the last, yet the atmosphere reminds the team’s GM of another formidable rotation that he helped to form earlier in his career before coming to Washington.
“I think competition begets performance,” Rizzo explained. “I remember in Arizona when we had [Curt] Schilling and [Randy] Johnson battling out for supremacy in that rotation.
“I really like the fact that we have four guys that have done it at the highest level and have the hardware to show for it.
“I think that the friendly competition I think will lift everybody's game and certainly going to be fun to watch those guys get after it in preparation for the season.
“It’s always a joy to watch those guys prepare during the season and the quiet competition that they have between each other.”
While the rotation’s relative experience is a huge boon to the team, it also comes with a unique challenge following a shortened season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
No longer spring chickens with rubber arms, the Nationals are hoping to be a bit more cautious with their veteran starters as they attempt to get them ready for potentially double the workload they had in 2020 — and in Strasburg’s case, significantly more of a workload.
“We hope that the veteran pitchers are a little bit more cautious and intelligent on their own workload,” Rizzo said
“Obviously we’re going to listen to Max and Stras and Patrick and Lester because they’ve been through the rigors of full seasons before, we’ll listen to how they’re feeling, and we often kind of incorporate our programs by the way they feel and with a lot of their input.”
As usual, the Nats' contention hopes largely sit on the shoulders of their decorated rotation. If the team can keep them healthy, they have a chance to carry them back to the postseason with Lester fitting in perfectly with the team's philosophy...