Two factors are important when analyzing a team’s pitching: starting rotation and bullpen. There was not a bigger discrepancy in a team’s performance last year between the two than the Washington Nationals. The starting rotation had the best ERA in baseball at 3.53 but the bullpen had the worst ERA at 5.66. This led manager Dave Martinez to rely on Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, and Patrick Corbin out of the bullpen throughout the playoffs. With bullpen acquisitions in the offseason Mike Rizzo hopes that they will help balance the load for the back-end arms.
Projected Starting Rotation (5)
There aren’t many teams (if any) that can stack up with the Washington Nationals top four. Led by future Hall of Famer, Max Scherzer, the Nationals have three potential aces on the roster. Maybe the biggest question for the top four of the rotation is Max Scherzer. So far, he has shown no signs of slowing down, and his work ethic is above all, but will father time come around this time for “Mad Max”? After Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg is coming off a marvelous postseason where he had a 1.98 ERA, which helped him in earning a new seven-year, $245 million contract. Patrick Corbin also played a key role in the postseason. Anibal Sanchez turned his 2019 season around after starting 0-6, and finishing with a solid 3.85 ERA.
Inside Track: Joe Ross
At the beginning of the season, Ross seemed to turn to more of a four-seam fastball out of the bullpen, rather than his usual sinker and faltered. Over his first 19 appearances, Ross had an ERA of 9.85 and was struggling to re-gain his identity of a “groundball” pitcher where he flourished earlier in his career. However, after he moved back to a sinker, Ross had a 2.75 ERA in his last eight starts. Ross must continue to re-gain the command as he had 20 walks in only 32.1 innings pitched in these outings.
This Spring, Ross was the front-runner for the fifth starter spot. Over the summer, Ross worked with pitching coach Paul Menhart to shorten his delivery and maintain simpler mechanics. Ross has impressed in Spring Training, allowing two runs in just over seven innings pitched. All signs point to Ross being the fifth starter as the season begins.
Outside Looking In: Austin Voth, Erick Fedde
Austin Voth impressed the Washington Nationals with an electric fastball last season. Voth struck out 44 batters in just 43.2 innings last season, posting a 3.30 ERA. Although Voth missed time last season with bicep tendinitis, he was on the Nationals postseason roster for the NLDS and NLCS. Out of options, Voth is in competition with Joe Ross for the final starting spot, where the one who doesn’t get the spot, seems destined for the bullpen.
This Spring Training, Voth has looked good, allowing one run in just seven innings and only one walk. The Washington Nationals may like Voth out of the bullpen better than Ross, as Voth had four strikeouts in two and a third scoreless innings last season in his only relief appearance, while Ross faltered out of the bullpen.
Erick Fedde has had an up and down career in the majors this far, which has led him to shuffle back and forth between Triple-A and the majors. He has shown flashes of the pitching which made him a consensus top 100 prospect before his debut against the Colorado Rockies, but inconsistencies in command have limited his effectiveness.
Fedde has one option remaining, and many believe that he will start the season in Triple-A. A common theme among Fedde’s starts are a strong first couple of innings, followed by him hitting a wall in the latter of his starts. Perhaps this could set the stage for a transition to the bullpen for Fedde to make the Major League club. In his first two innings Fedde has a 3.00 and 2.84 ERA, and these rise to a 5.54 and 8.10 ERA in the third and fourth innings.
Projected Relief Pitchers (8)
Locks: Sean Doolittle, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Roenis Elias, Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, Austin Voth/Joe Ross
Although the Washington Nationals were the worst bullpen in baseball last year, this group, on paper, appears to be one of the strengths of the team. After suffering from overuse last year, which led to an IL stint, Sean Doolittle is back at closer for the Nationals after posting a 4.05 ERA last season. This ERA is inflated due to the rough time he had against the New York Mets this past season. He allowed ten runs in eight innings against them. Doolittle carried the bullpen in the first half of the season as the rest of the bullpen faltered. The overuse led his fastball to drop to 89-91 at times.
It could be safe to say that the acquisition of Daniel Hudson at the 2019 trade deadline was the move that propelled them to the World Series in 2019. Hudson provided much-needed relief to Sean Doolittle in the closer role, and pitched pivotal innings in the postseason. The Nationals hope Hudson can sustain his 1.44 ERA after joining the Nationals last season. Mike Rizzo & Co. re-signed Hudson to a two-year, $11 million contract. The Washington Nationals also signed former Houston Astros pitcher Will Harris to a three-year, $24 million contract. Harris had a 1.50 ERA last season with 62 strikeouts in 60 innings.
Among the others who are coming back, Roenis Elias hopes to stay healthy after a pair of hamstring injuries hampered his season last year. Dave Martinez hopes that Elias can improve against left-handed hitters after they hit .368 against him last season. Wander Suero is another pitcher who suffered from overuse last season. Suero, who was fourth last season in appearances, has a nasty cutter which allowed him to have 81 strikeouts in just 71 innings. Tanner Rainey is another player with “back-end” potential as his fastball sizzles in the upper 90s. Rainey had a 3.91 ERA last season, but he walked 38 in just over 48 innings pitched.
Inside Track: Javy Guerra
Javy Guerra pitched for the Nationals in 51 games last season. He gives the Nationals some length, as he can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, but this could be less of a need due to the addition of Austin Voth or Joe Ross to the bullpen. After the Nationals designated him for assignment, Guerra found himself on the NLCS roster last season. He has pitched six scoreless innings in Spring Training. He could provide experience in the Nationals bullpen if they plan to go this route.
Outside Looking In: James Bourque, Ryne Harper, Kyle Finnegan, Erick Fedde, Fernando Abad
All four of these young pitchers have pitched well this Spring. After a rough Major League debut last season, James Bourque has struck out eleven batters in six innings this Spring. He has a big fastball, at 95 MPH, and could be in play for the opening day roster if the Washington Nationals want power out of the bullpen.
Ryne Harper was acquired from the Minnesota Twins this offseason. He pitched solid last season with a 3.81 ERA but has allowed three runs in six innings in Spring Training. Harper was traded to the Nationals when the Twins needed to open up a roster spot after the Josh Donaldson signing.
Kyle Finnegan was signed in December by the Nationals. He has yet to debut after spending seven seasons in the Oakland Athletics farm system. Finnegan has struggled this Spring allowing three runs in five innings, but could provide quality depth in Triple-A.
Fernando Abad, the former National, is an option if the Nationals choose to go with another lefty out of the bullpen. Abad was a non-roster invitee, who has yet to allow a run in Spring Training. Left-handed hitters hit .234 against Abad in his career. With the new three-batter rule, it would be tough to keep Abad.