Presumed Plan : Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez return to the rotation. Joe Ross and Tanner Roark take the place of the departing Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister.
Reasoning on Presumed Plan : Doug Fister flamed out and given his age there really isn't a reason to try to bring him back. They will probably toss a QO at Jordan Zimmermann, but he stands to make a lot of money on the FA market and the Nats aren't looking to make that sort of investment on ZNN. They've already put out there that they think TJ arms are ticking time bombs and won't give ZNN the years he probably wants.
Outside of an unfortunately ill-timed off month, Scherzer was arguably the best pitcher in the NL in a year filled with great pitching. He's in.
After returning from injury Strasburg was better than anyone not named Jake Arrieta to end the year. He's in.
Gio? He's fine. He put up another year of slightly better than average pitching, he's left-handed (the only one for the Nats), and he has a reasonable contract. He's in.
Joe Ross assumed a role in the starting rotation after Doug Fister never got over his issues and he performed well above expectations to start. Later issues could be linked to fatigue as Ross pushed past his old high of ~120 IP to 150.
Tanner Roark had pitched wonderfully in 2014 as a starter, putting up a great ERA and earning a spot in the 2015 rotation until Scherzer was signed. While he did have some rough outings in 2015 as a starter most attribute that to having to move from the pen to starter and back. When finally given a good number of starts in a row to end the year it looked like Roark was settling back into his groove nicely.
The Nats organizational depth isn't spectacular. Giolito will be in the majors soon, but had to adjust to AA last year and will probably be given time to dominate there and adjust to AAA before being brought up to the majors. 2016 is possible but I think 2017 is more likely. Reynaldo Lopez, who the Nats were high on before last year, had an off year and is likely to start 2016 in AA with some question marks on him. AJ Cole, who the Nats thought may slide into a rotation role did not fare well at the major league level and is not enough of a prospect to force any of the supposed rotation out. Austin Voth and Austin Williams are interesting arms to watch in 2016 but neither are ready now. Note that these are all RH. The Nats LHSP depth is non-existant.
Problems with Presumed Plan : It's hard to find a fault with Scherzer. You do have to question why that bad month was SO bad. His ERA was 2.09 after his July 19th start. Then is his next 9 starts his ERA was 5.54 (over 6 in August). Then he'd finish the year with 5 starts at a 1.63 ERA. If it was fatigue then does a stubborn Max and an old-school Dusty lead to more of that? Still it's not like you don't use him.
Strasburg is like the Nats typical offensive player. "If he's healthy" he's good. But we saw what he was like pitching when he wasn't healthy (ERA at 6.50 after first 9 starts).
Gio was perfectly fine but he continues to trend in the wrong direction. His WHIP was the highest since his rookie year (1.423) and he was completely inconsistent. Given his age and the innings on the arm you have to believe that if he does find consistency it won't be at "consistently good".
Maybe Joe Ross got tired. Or maybe the league caught up with Joe Ross a rookie who was liked but never seen as an elite prospect. One has to worry too that after pitching 120 innings in 2013 and 2014 that in 2015 he pretty much started having issues right at that 120 inning mark. A guy should be able to stretch further each year, not hit a wall. Also his BABIP was rather low - luck makes more sense than the kid pitching like a crafty veteran in his first season in the majors. Ross is more of an unknown than Nats fans are probably thinking.
Roark wasn't good starting in 2015. What more do you need than that to cast doubt on him starting in 2016? Forget starting, he didn't pitch well overall. WHIP up, Ks down, walks up, homers up. That may seem unusual but those stats last year were far more in line with the guy that the Nats had seen in their minors up until his 2013 breakthrough. Maybe the Nats caught lightning in a bottle with the guy and now that is gone.
My take : Scherzer you run with, of course. I would keep an eye out on that hard use -> bad performance pattern that emerged but that doesn't mean I would not have him throw tough innings next year. In fact I might encourage it because we need to know if the guy just had a bad month or has aged into a place where he can't go 8+ over and over or else he'll need rest. Anyway you slice it though, we're nitpicking. He's a true #1.
Strasburg is a gamble because of his 2015 injuries but what are you going to do? Having a rotation with only one big injury risk is a victory in itself. He's good, he's been good for a while. He starts.
Gio... I'm worried about Gio, I'll admit. The Cy Young vote days are long since gone and they aren't ever coming back. Last year he suddenly became a GB pitcher which was effective but was also very weird after multiple season of success not being one. That change helped in large part because it helped his homers stay down but otherwise he was hit pretty hard and it showed in the number of hits he gave up (9.3 per 9 - most since 2009). It's like he's trying to transition to the second half of his career, where he's a "crafty lefty" but we don't know if he has what it takes. For various reasons you do stay with Gio but next year is going to be telling. Do the GBs stay down? Does he still get hit hard? Do the Ks drop some more? Last year was a bit of a tight rope season and 2016 will either show that he knows how to walk it, or he'll fall off.
I'll admit you guys like Ross way more than me. That BABIP, that HR rate, that K rate. It's as if you said "What's the best possible numbers Ross can hit" and then he hit them. But he did it in basically only 7-10 starts so that screams "caution" to me. A lot of his early success came from the fact that he started his time here striking out more guys than he ever did in the minors. That doesn't happen, especially from a guy who had issues with that starting out in the minors. Once it resolved to a more expected level the hits and runs came easier. I do also worry about that 120 IP thing. Does his arm have what it takes? Then again 120 IP in the minors is not 120 IP in the majors. More stress could mean an earlier tiring than we thought. We'll just have to see - 120 IP is around the All-Star break so he should have a nice long break right when he might need it most. All this makes it sound like I think he'll be bad. I don't but I think for 2016 a true #4 type pitcher is more likely than the #2 esque you saw to start. Which is fine! Because he will be a #4!
You have to write off 2015 for Roark because of the bouncing back and forth. Yes everything got worse. But it really doesn't chnage anything that you would have thought if Roark was a starter going into 2015. He did it for one year. He has to prove he can do it again. The Nats don't have a better fifth option and given that his 2014 was so good he deserves a shot to see if he can replicate it. Can he? I don't know. I doubt he can be that good. But good enough to hold a rotation spot is all that the Nats need here.
The problem with the Nats rotation in 2015 wasn't that it wasn't good. It was, even with the injuries and failures. The problem was that it was supposed to be great. That it wasn't and 2016's rotation doesn't have that same potential. Still if Strasburg is healthy all year, it could be better than 2015, with an unstoppable 1-2 at the top. Ross and Roark both represent good bets to make with your last rotation spots. There isn't really a problem here outside of the depth. Rotations almost always suffer injuries and the Nats don't have a strong Day 1 option for filling in. That will probably resolve in the first few months; Cole or Voth will do well or someone in AAA/AA will look good enough to deserve a fill-in shot, but if the Nats suffer injuries before Opening Day they could be in trouble. I'd love to see them grab a couple of on their way out veteran starters on minor league / cheap deals for org depth.
Outside the Box Suggestion : The Nats need to maximize the time Giolito and Bryce Harper are together on the major league level. If you really believe in Giolito you put him in the majors now and try to give them 3 years together. If he is really awesome you give yourself the potential that you had last year - a great rotation. But we don't stop there. AJ Cole should get a long extended trial in the majors now and Austin Voth shouldn't be far behind. How do you make room? First, you don't trade Strasburg. He gives the team the best chance of winning in 2016 by far. What you do is you make Roark a back of the pen reliever. You tell him the Nats need him there, that's his new role, and if he balks you trade him for an effective 8th inning guy. You can get that for him given the years left under control. Second, you trade Gio. He's effective, lefty and the contract is good so he has value. At the same time he's only ok and why settle for that? Trade him for relief help too.
Sure this could blow up in your face, but the Nats have a Bryce window to deal with. We've talked about how hard it is to improve a team with good players because great players are rare and cost so much. Bryce is a great player NOW and costs relative peanuts. The Nats need to take advantage of these 3 years where he's sure to be here and cheap. One way is spending a lot of money - go out and get a Price/Greinke or trade for a guy at the end of his deal (there really is no one though) and do it that way. Bet on Strasburg. That doesn't seem likely to me. So we go the other way. Bet on Giolito. Try to find a great young rotation with what you have. By trying Giolito and Cole and getting Ross's second year and probably seeing some of Voth or Lopez, you'll have a better idea of if NEXT offseason you need that one more special starter or not.