The Washington Nationals are slated to wrap up their 2021 Spring Training schedule in just under a week against the Houston Astros. Then, Davey Martinez’s ball club will open the season at home against the new look and supremely talented New York Mets on April 1st.
For the Nationals to compete with the Mets and Atlanta Braves in the daunting NL East, their pitching must fulfill their lofty expectations, especially after the disappointing 2020 season. Patrick Corbin, Daniel Hudson, and Max Scherzer, albeit to a much lesser extent, had down 2020 seasons and Stephen Strasburg missed most of the season with carpal tunnel neuritis. In addition to bounceback seasons from their $525 million top three in the starting rotation, the Nationals hope that the signings of Brad Hand and Jon Lester will solidify the backend of the bullpen and starting rotation, respectively.
Here is the projected pitching staff, both the starting rotation and bullpen, for the Washington Nationals as they enter the 2021 season.
Washington Nationals Opening Day Roster Projection: Pitchers
Starting Rotation (5)
Locks (4): Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester
The four locks in the Washington Nationals rotation boast 48 combined years of major league pitching.
Max Scherzer is slated to start on opening day for the sixth time in seven seasons. He is coming off a bit of a down season, where he posted his highest ERA, 3.74, since 2012. Following Scherzer, the former World Series MVP, Stephen Strasburg, is the second piece of the rotation. Strasburg had an injury scare last week after leaving his March 14th Spring Training start early due to calf discomfort. However, it seems as if it was just a precaution as Strasburg pitched 74 pitches in a simulated game late last week. Jon Lester was another injury scare for the Nationals as he felt fatigued throughout Spring Training. In early March, he underwent surgery to remove his thyroid gland. Last week, Lester made his Nationals debut against the Mets, pitching two innings and allowing two runs with two strikeouts.
A concerning trend for the Nationals heading into the regular season is the performance of Patrick Corbin. In 2020, Corbin had a 4.66 ERA and an MLB-leading 85 hits allowed. Corbin has yet to find his command thus far in Spring Training, walking six batters in 8 and two-thirds innings and surrendering five earned runs.
Probable (1): Joe Ross
Joe Ross is all but a lock to be the fifth starter after a solid Spring Training. The 27-year old right-hander is heading into a critical season after opting out of the 2020 season due to the Covid-19 concerns. He came on strong towards the end of the 2019 season, pitching to a 2.75 ERA in his last eight starts. This Spring, Ross has allowed three earned runs in nine and two-thirds innings and walked just two batters, a concern since his return from Tommy John. If Ross regains his pre-Tommy John form, he could round out the rotation with much-needed youth.
Locks (5): Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Kyle Finnegan
While it has been thrown around plenty over the past few seasons, the Washington Nationals seem to have their best bullpen since the “Law Firm” with Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler. Even after the injury scare with Will Harris, who has been sidelined with blood clots in his pitching arm, the Nationals seem to have reliable options for the backend of the bullpen. They signed Brad Hand to a one-year, $10.5 million contract. Hand had a career-low 2.05 ERA last season, despite a 1.3 mile per hour dip in his fastball.
A player who the Nationals need to rebound is Daniel Hudson. The 2019 postseason hero had a 6.10 ERA last season, sparked by surrendering an alarming 2.6 home runs per nine innings. Tanner Rainey also made his Spring Training debut for the Nationals on Sunday after dealing with a collarbone injury. He looked dominant last season with a 2.66 ERA and 14.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan should provide the Nationals quality middle relief options, with the potential to slide into a backend role if the opportunity arises. Coming off a season where he posted a 3.80 ERA, Wander Suero is still searching for consistency. He has shown flashes of being a dominant reliever with his cutter and curveball combination but has had the occasional “blow-up” where he allows three or more earned runs. He had just one such appearance last season after having five in 2019. Kyle Finnegan was a pleasant surprise for the Nationals as he not only made his MLB debut but pitched quality innings late in games. Finnegan finished the 2020 season with a 2.92 ERA.
Probable (1): Austin Voth
Austin Voth is a very interesting piece for the Nationals in 2021. Off the heels of a rough 2020 season, where he had a 6.34 ERA and 1.51 WHIP, Voth has had an up and down Spring. Overall, he has allowed five runs and 13 hits in 10 innings pitched, good for a 4.50 ERA. But, last week, Voth pitched four scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins, attacking the strike zone with his fastball. The difference in minor league options between Voth and Erick Fedde, another candidate for the long-man in the bullpen, has been eliminated. Per Jesse Dougherty, an arbiter ruled in Fedde’s favor, eliminating his fourth minor-league option. Now, Voth and Fedde must pass waivers if the Nationals want to send them down to a minor-league affiliate.
Sources: Erick Fedde no longer has a fourth minor league option after an arbiter ruled in his favor this week.
This means Fedde can no longer be sent down without going through waivers. Could certainly change the pitching staff calculus for the Nationals.
— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) March 23, 2021
Bubble (2): Kyle McGowin, Luis Avilán
The last two spots in the bullpen will be very interesting for the Nationals. They could go in various directions, including Sam Clay, Javy Guerra, and Erick Fedde. However, Kyle McGowin could offer the perfect blend between length and upside, while Luis Avilán provides an experienced southpaw to complement Brad Hand. McGowin had an excellent stint in the major leagues in 2020. His numbers are not entirely indicative of his performance. He had just two earned runs in his first seven appearances (eight innings) with 13 strikeouts. At times, McGowin’s slider made hitters look silly as flailed at pitches in the left-handed batter’s box. Despite a rough appearance against the Philadelphia Phillies, where he allowed four runs in one inning, McGowin has a legitimate case to be on the roster after posting a 2.45 ERA in Spring.
Heading into his 11th season, Luis Avilán could provide a steady left-handed arm for the Nationals. He pitched in just ten games last season with the New York Yankees but has struck out ten batters in 6.2 innings during Spring Training. Sam Clay could also be an option if the Nationals decide to go the “youth route.”
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