Take : The 2014 staff was the best staff in the majors. Everyone could return, so why wouldn't you return everyone? Barring injury, it will be at least very good again. The depth was a little questionable though with AJ Cole or Blake Treinen seemingly most likely to get spot starts.
2015 Reality :We fooled ourselves.
While the rotation was great in 2014, the likelihood was that it would regress to "merely" very good in 2015. There were questions like: Was Roark a one-season wonder? Would Fister continue to pitch like that and if so, could his luck hold up? Would Gio continue to slide? Would the Nats keep their amazing health? I think, to start the off-season, we kind of understood with that many questions, and just the general variability that comes with any baseball season, the chances of them being great again were slim.
Then Max Scherzer was brought in.
Suddenly, it was like his signing somehow answered all those questions positively. It was like there was no chance the pitching staff could be anything less than great. Except of course it could. First off Max wouldn't replace the likely biggest problem in the Nats rotation, Doug Fister, because Fister had effectively camouflaged his issues. He had the best ERA on the team! You can't take that guy out even if everything shouted that pitching like that (no Ks, just good, not great, at keeping hits or homers down) and getting those results was a complete fluke. Instead, Scherzer would replace Roark. Upgrading from a very solid 2/3 season to an ace is not the same as kicking out a #5 type. The impact would be felt, but it wouldn't be great.
Sure Roark to the pen would help answer the depth issue, but if the Nats needed to use depth that meant there were actually more questions to answer. Which pitcher would be getting replaced? If it was Max, ZNN or Stras then Roark would probably not be an upgrade. Was it injury or performance? If it was performance, how long would it take a pitcher to fail and how bad would he have to be before Roark would be used? How long would it take Roark to get his groove back? All valid questions but we went along assuming if someone goes down, the Nats would just stick in Roark and he'd be very good.
Seduced by the idea of a historic rotation things we'd normally assume unlikely to be repeated upon individual review; the career-type season by ZNN, the fluke season by Fister, the career-type season by Scherzer; we acted as if were near certainties. But only Strasburg was still at an age where improvement could be reasonably expected. Given the make-up of the rotation and the complete lack of under-performance in 2014, a bet on two or three of the rotation pitching noticeably worse in 2015 was where the smart money would be. That's even before factoring in that it was likely one or two would have some sort of injury troubles. The historic rotation was based on everyone hitting their best performance of the last couple years. What was far more likely was a season where everyone hit their expectations and then that total should probably have been adjusted down 10% or so for the injury possibilities.
You do that calculation and what do you have? You still have a rotation that's good enough to be Top 5 ish in the majors, but isn't team carrying. And you know what? By hook or by crook, that is pretty much where the Nats ended up this year. Despite how it looked during the season the pitching staff was fine. It was better than fine. It was almost exactly where it should have been expected to be. Gio hit his mark. Scherzer surpassed his. Zimmermann underperformed a little. Fister would get injured but would get replaced by Ross who would pitch very well. Strasburg would have half a terrible season and half a remarkable one. Maybe the rotation was a tick under where it should have been but just a tick.
The truth is the rotation did what it should have done. The problem wasn't with the rotation it was with our expectations. We kept saying "Last year's rotation did X" but "last year's rotation" wasn't a reasonable comparison to start out against. Last year's rotation was a fluke of 3 unlikely events coming together at once (ZNN's and Roark's probable career seasons and Fister's run of luck) combined with nothing going wrong at all with the other 2 starters AND near perfect health. Last year the Nats starting pitching drew a straight flush and then we complained that this year's rotation wasn't holding a Royal one.
What does this mean going forward? Well it means we need to be a bit more careful with expectations on the aggregate and we need to be a bit more careful when expecting great seasons to be repeated. That means that we have to temper the expectations for Scherzer and BRYCE. A very good Max and a very good Bryce are more reasonable expectations and the team needs to consider that the baseline when planning 2015. Historic seasons by players or teams are singular events. Planning on singular events to happen again is what fools do and in 2015 we were fools.