Prospects or cash to help the rotation?


The “find a catcher” slot on Mike Rizzo’s offseason to-do list is mostly crossed off. Signing Kurt Suzuki last weekend gave the Nationals a new starting catcher. It also didn’t fully solve the spot. 

Though, it does enable Rizzo to move on to deal with his offseason’s biggest hole: the third spot in the rotation. 

We discussed options at second base earlier this week. We’ve covered how the Nationals are capable of moving forward in a good position without Bryce Harper. It’s the third spot in the rotation which presents the most problems a year after starting pitching failed an organization that invests in that spot as much as any other. Let’s take a look: 

The in-house option: Not great, Bob

This setup would look something like this: Tanner Roark as the No. 3, Joe Ross as the No. 4, figure it out as the No. 5. That’s not what a team designed for the playoffs wants to roll onto the field.

Roark’s 2018 was strange. Not because he finished with an out-of-character 4.34 ERA. More so because he couldn’t find a path to correction.

Since the Nationals moved Roark back to a starter in 2014, he was able to correct rough outings in short order. Not last season. His ruts were extended despite tweaks to his delivery (which focused on his back leg) and pitch choice (he went back to his two-seam fastball more often). June and July were a mess. August was much better. September’s three starts were short, ineffective and arguably Roark’s worst three-game run of the season.

Which brings us to where he will be operating in 2019. After another round of arbitration, he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2020. He’s pitching for his contract future. Ideally for the Nationals, Roark is doing that as No. 4 starter, as much as those things exist.

Ross is another matter. He logged three September starts following the completion of his Tommy John surgery rehabilitation. Making the starts carried the same importance as the results. He’ll have a shot in the spring at a rotation spot. It just won’t be on the upper end.

Both Roark and, especially, Ross are stretches for the spot. No one else in-house has provided any reason for consideration. Erick Fedde has a 6.44 ERA in 14 career starts. The minor league system is devoid of high-end pitching prospects who may be close to ready next season.

The free agent choices: Time to pay up

Patrick Corbin is the premier choice here, though there is risk. 

Corbin was at his best last season. His ERA declined for the third consecutive season. His strikeout total roared upward. His command was better. Everything lined up to produce a 3.15 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 137 ERA-plus. In short, Corbin was one of the National League’s best pitchers.

And he’s left-handed. A crucial element for teams chasing the Los Angeles Dodgers, who hit right-handers much better.

Corbin will be the offseason’s third-most expensive free agent behind Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. He fits every need the Nationals have: A left-handed starter to replace Gio Gonzalez, a third quality arm to increase the foundation of the starting rotation behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, another postseason weapon should they make it.

The complication, as it continues to be, is Harper. Can they pay both? Do they want to pay both? Is it worth it to pay both? If the situation is one or the other, it makes more sense for the Nationals to invest in Corbin, considering how they are structured. 

The trade options: Time to go Mad?

James Paxton appeared a fit in this situation until the New York Yankees took care of that with a prospect package for the former Seattle left-hander. Now what?

Maybe Madison Bumgarner. He’s entering the final year of his contract, costs a modest $12 million (the same as Gonzalez last season) and the Giants are lagging in the National League West after a run of dominance. 

Paxton set the market here to a degree. The contractual differences (Paxton remains dirt cheap going into arbitration each of the next two seasons) would influence the haul. Bumgarner’s salary is higher, though he is also under control just for a season. Perhaps that means lower-level prospects -- say a package around shortstop/third baseman Luis Garcia -- would be enticing to the Giants. The Nationals could easily withstand the blow. Trea Turner is going nowhere for at least the next four years. They would like to provide Anthony Rendon an extension (Scott Boras has other plans, of course). 

A recommended path

The more we outline these segments, the more it becomes clear the Nationals are working from a sturdy foundation, at least on paper. They could pay Corbin, or even Dallas Keuchel at a lower rate, or even go a notch below to J.A. Happ. They could check on Bumgarner without costing themselves an on-the-cusp prospect. Remember, Bumgarner’s injury last season was out of his control. A line drive struck his pitching hand in his final spring start. He was effective in his return, though his command and K rate took modest hits. Acquiring him would fill the Nationals hole in the rotation, provide them financial flexibility going forward and enable them to take care of another issue independent of a decision by Harper. They just need the Giants to cooperate.



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