Getting close to the Winter Meetings now. Are you ready to be sneaking around hotels hoping to overhear bits and pieces of information like good little spies? No? You have jobs and lives? What good are you?
Last Year's Discussion
Last year's rotation was pretty set and we knew it. Max, Stras, Gio, Roark, and Ross.
We didn't have any real issue with the plan. Yes, we worried about Strasburg's health. Yes, we worried about Gio's decline. Yes, we (well more "I") worried about Ross' limited history. Yes, we worried if Roark could do it again. But these were all good bets to take and as a whole the biggest rotation worry was depth. After these five it wasn't clear who would fill in, especially early in the year.
Well it turns out that didn't matter much early in the year. Stras would miss a couple games in June but the first 80 games were not only basically injury free, but free of worry as well. Max scuffled a bit in April but that cleared up fine. Roark did do it again. Strasburg looked good. Ross looked good. Yes, Gio really had us looking at alternatives after a poor May and June, but one pitcher in a rotation being in trouble isn't a worry. It's a season going well.
At that point things unraveled a bit. Ross' injury in July essentially put the Gio issue on the back burner. The depth issue we worried about did not get clearer as the year went on and Lopez, Giolito, and Cole all struggled as replacements. Ross would never really get back and worse, Strasburg would be shut down as the year drew to a close. Now the Nats, who half-way through the year were four deep, were two deep and if they hadn't faced the Dodgers in the playoffs would have had a very tough call on starting the struggling Gio or the maybe healthy Ross.
They made it to the finish line but just barely.
Max, Stras, Roark, one of Gio/Ross, something new.
Reasoning on Presumed Plan
Max won the Cy Young. He's got a huge long contract. He's in.
Roark got a Cy Young vote (just one but it was deserved). He's super cheap. He's in.
At this point we run into the problem the Nats would like to solve. They have two pitchers who they feel they can rely on (as much as you can) to be healthy and good. That means they have to hope things work out for one of the rest to set them up decently for the playoffs, which they presume to make. If it's Strasburg, great! It's hard to imagine him not being good if he's healthy. If it's not Strasburg then it's a question mark on how good a thing that is. Rather than leave it up to the fates again, the Nats would be wise to make a deal, and they've already floated out there that Gio is available and that they were willing to trade a starter last year.
Even if they don't get a new starter, it's very likely that Lopez or Giolito (or both) will need to start getting some full-time major league work next season. They both handled AAA pretty well last year. It was in limited innings, so a second go around would be advisable, but it would surprise me if at least one of them wasn't doing well enough by the All-Star break to warrant a long look in the majors.
It won't be Strasburg going though. Yes, he's got a team-friendly contract for someone with his age and performance record, but the injury history can't be ignored. His forearm issues probably make him expendable in trade by the Nats, but also probably make him not a target for anyone else. Perhaps if he came back fully last year, but he didn't. He's in.
It could easily be Gio. He's much older than Ross and clearly on the decline. He's got value though. He's on a team friendly deal. You wouldn't be tied to a long contract - 2 years at most. He's not old (31 next year). He's durable. Plus teams could always use lefties. Of course that goes for the Nats too.
It could also easily be Ross. Ross didn't do much wrong last year, but he also didn't make himself untradable, a la Trea Turner. He was more hittable last year, without improving in other areas. He failed to surpass the 150 IP mark he hit as a career high in 2015, leaving questions about his durability. But he's still young (24 next year), and figures to be at worst a #3ish type for 3/4 of a season and is under team control through 2021. Of course for the Nats he's a #4 and that means he has more value to some other team than he does for the Nats. That means it's worth exploring what he can bring back.
Problems with Presumed Plan
There's always concerns with pitching injuries. That is baseball life. Given that, nothing much has changed about what we said last year. There isn't a clear replacement available right now if the Nats suffer injuries. So making a trade would potentially make things worse in that regard.
On the first guys mentioned you can nitpick issues. Max did struggle a bit going to the end of the year and you all know I think his workload and age is setting himself up for an extended period of missed time. As for Roark, his peripherals (highest BB/9, lowest K/9 of any Nats starter) do not inspire the confidence.
Strasburg... it all comes down to injuries doesn't it? He seemed to turn a corner last year in learning how to pitch and not just overpower the opponent but the fragility remains. Which ever of the last two are kept, big issues remain. Gio could easily finally go over the border into "innings eating 5th starter" land which he seems inexorably moving over to. Ross has to prove he can pitch a full season and some improvement or at least a steadiness, would be nice.
Max and Tanner are set. This isn't a question. You can nitpick Max, but CY YOUNG. You can nitpick Roark, but at this point who's betting on him not being at least good next year? Being hard to hit is hard to quantify in fancy stats but he seems to have it. Strasburg also has to be in. If you try to trade him you are selling low and the Nats need a healthy Strasburg as much as any other team.
Ok so who to deal? Gio is more expendable, but Ross will bring back more. Gio has particular value as a lefty, as we saw in the playoffs, but Ross sets up the team better for the future, even if he settles in at the back of the rotation for the next few seasons.
I have to say you first try to trade Gio. Yes, lefties are necessary but it took a particular match-up to make that an issue and I'll take my chances that doesn't come up again. Good pitchers should beat any team any way. If you can keep Ross you do it because unlike Gio he can be in Washington 4-5 years from now, still cheap. At worst he'd be Gio, ably filling innings. At best he'd be another teams #2/#3 sitting in your four spot. There is an injury/durability question no-doubt, but at 24 I'm willing to bet on him, especially given that Gio is likely only in DC for one more year.
That being said if you can trade Ross to get much better for the next 2+ years you do it. Like if Ross is necessary to get Sale, well nice knowing you Joe! He does have more value for another team than the Nats where if things go right he wouldn't break the Top 3 until Roark maybe leaves in 2020. Let him flourish somewhere else for 4-5 years and let the Nats dominate here for 2-3. That seems right.
Out of the Box Idea
The Nats have gone starting pitching first for this entire time frame. It's gotten them a lot of wins, three division titles... and no playoff series wins. Let's shake things up. Let's trade Ross and Gio AND Roark. Ross, Gio and whatever else is necessary over to Arizona for Goldschmidt and Castillo. Roark and whatever else is left to Col for Charlie Blackmon. Let's try slugging it to a championship for a change.