A few years ago a rotation consisting of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Jon Lester would get any fan giddy, but heading into 2021, this rotation should b concerning to Washington Nationals fans. Just a few years ago, this clearly would have been one of the best rotations in baseball, irrespective of the fifth man in the rotation. Alas, in 2021 such a rotation lends itself more to the idea of the Nationals clinging to past glory than truly contending in the here and now.
Injuries are mostly to blame for Nationals fans having to temper their expectations for their starting rotation. One year removed from being the best pitcher on the planet Stephen Strasburg only saw action in only two games before carpel tunnel neuritis shut him down for the remainder of the already shortened season.
While Max Scherzer didn’t miss time, it was clear that his 2020 was hampered by various ailments all year long as well. The two biggest cogs in Washington’s rotation are a year older and their bodies aren’t any less prone to injuries.
Strasburg, who has a history of injury (and excellent performance) deserves to be in a category all by himself simply because he represents the highest risk/reward of any of the Nationals starting four. If he is on his game, as he was in 2019 — when in 209.0 innings he put together a 2.13 DRA and 8.3 bWARP en route to dominating throughout the playoffs and guiding the Nationals to their first-ever World Series title — he’s one of the best pitchers on the planet. Unfortunately for Nationals fans, Strasburg suffered his fair share of injuries in becoming the pitcher we saw in 2019. That doesn’t take away from his career, a 2.49 DRA and 46.2 bWARP in 11 big league seasons. Still, that great career has seen multiple trips to the injured list, despite being handled with kid-gloves and it gives more than enough pause when thinking about the former first overall draft pick returning from yet another injury that cost him an entire season.
Scherzer has spent his career in Washington gutting out tough performances and providing excellence on the mound that has culminated with two Cy Young wins and finishing in the top-five in Cy Young voting three additional times.
More than any other player Scherzer was responsible for the Nationals emerging from the shadows to become perennial contenders. Prior to 2020 the right-hander never had a DRA above 2.48 and averaged a 7.38 bWARP. All the same, Scherzer is now 36 years old and it’s clear from the past few seasons that father time has started to catch up with him. So far his results haven’t suffered all that much and 2020 shouldn’t be given too much thought. But, it’s hard to imagine someone as max effort as Scherzer continuing his 2015-2019 production as his body breaks down on him.
Corbin’s 2020 can be viewed as an anomaly, but a deeper look at his history reveals cause for concern. In eight big league seasons, Corbin has been great in three of them and mediocre in the rest. There’s an inconsistency to his performance that is hard to peg down. What makes his 2020 even more difficult to swallow, in 65.7 innings a 5.20 DRA and 0.4 bWARP, is that all the big changes he made to propel him to a great 2018-2019 were still present. He was the same pitcher last year as he was in those seasons, only last year he wasn’t fooling hitters and gave up far more contact than usual leading to a career-high 1.570 WHIP. Corbin has the raw talent to be great in 2021, but there’s no way of knowing which version of the pitcher will show up.
Lester, meanwhile, is not the same guy who took the Chicago Cubs to a 2016 World Series title. Rather, he’s an aging veteran who is well-removed from his ace years and is now a back of the rotation innings eater. There’s value in that to be sure, but Nationals fans shouldn’t be looking at their new signing and expecting more than a 5.5ish DRA and around 180 innings pitched. If he can hit that 180 number then Lester will have done his job. However, four years in a row of a ballooning DRA point to a pitcher on the decline versus an important piece in the Nationals making the playoffs yet again.
Unfortunately the Nats are entering the 2021 season and not the 2017 season. Their rotation could be dominant next year but it could also be a complete disaster. In that respect, the Nationals’ top four starters are right in line with the approach the team has taken to roster construction the past two seasons. No matter which way the season goes for Washington the teams fans are in for one bumpy ride.