Five Questions for the 2016 Nationals

Will the starting pitching be better?

The starting pitching wasn’t bad in 2015, it just wasn’t as anywhere near its preseason “historically brilliant” billing. In general, it wasn’t even as good as it was in 2014. Jordan Zimmerman regressed to his career mean; Doug Fister got hurt early and was generally ineffective; Gio Gonzalez was good but inconsistent; and Tanner Roark never had a clearly defined role and suffered for it.

Strasburg had an awful first half and injuries, but when he found his groove in the second half, he was all but unhittable. Max Scherzer had an awful August but set career bests in innings pitched and strikeouts – he seems to be getting better.

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It bears repeating: despite Strasburg’s brutal first half, and despite Scherzer’s brutal August, they were both dominant pitchers in 2015. There is no reason to think they won’t be dominant in 2016, too. Most teams would be thrilled with just the two of them. But the Nationals starting pitching – while by no means of Mets-grade depth – is more than just Max and Stephen.

Gonzalez and Roark both had strange seasons. Gonzalez, the lone lefty in the rotation, has become a fantastic groundball pitcher, inducing grounders about 53% of the time last year. But he’s prone to wildness, and thus, high pitch counts that limit his ability to eat innings. Roark bounced between starting and relieving, long relieving and even earning his first save; he had a rough year, and the lack of role couldn’t have helped. Getting a set position for Roark and bringing out a more efficient Gonzalez would be huge gains for the Nats.

If it were just Max, Stephen, Gio, and Tanner – again, most teams would be thrilled with that. But, again, it’s not just these four, because there is a youth movement afoot in Nationals starting pitching.

Joe Ross and Lucas Giolito are on the verge of becoming fixtures in Washington. Ross had a brilliant 2015 debut, rising from Double-A to become one of the club’s most reliable starters, bumping the veteran Fister into the bullpen. Ross wore down as the season went on, as one would expect from a young arm in the midst of the longest season of his career, but what a debut he made:

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Meanwhile, Giolito continues to work in Double-A, but will be invited to the big league camp this spring where he’ll get a chance to showcase his high-90s fastball and knee-buckling curve. There’s no reason to rush Giolito. But his stuff is electric and if he continues to grow, he certainly could factor into Washington’s 2016 pitching plan.

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