Barring Injuries, Patrick Corbin Puts the Nationals Back in the Pennant Race

The big fish on the starting pitching market landed in the nation’s capital. Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Nationals agreed to a six-year, $140 million deal with former Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander Patrick Corbin. And if Corbin, along with the bulk of their pitching staff, can stay healthy, the Nationals are back in the National League pennant race.

First-off: paying $140 million for Corbin is a huge risk for the Nationals. The 29-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery back in 2014 and has been inconsistent throughout his career. The Nationals are significantly banking on the 2018 version of Corbin carrying over into his six-year deal.

There’s no denying that Corbin had a superb 2018 campaign. He was an All-Star Game participant and was the Diamondbacks ace throughout the regular season. Finishing with a career-best 3.15 ERA and 1.05 WHIP while totaling 246 strikeouts (another career-best) in 200 innings pitched, Corbin was one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball. He continues to blow his slider past hitters and appears to have turned a corner in his career. He’s also made 65 starts in the last two seasons — which likely has the Nationals optimistic that the injury concern is overblown.

If Corbin can prove that notion true, the Nationals have arguably the best starting rotation — or at least the best top three — in MLB in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Corbin.

In his four years with the Nationals, Scherzer has been nothing short of spectacular. He has recorded ERAs below 3.00 (twice under 2.60), WHIPs below 1.000, and been a dominant force every fifth day. He led MLB in strikeouts in 2018 (300), pitches deep into games, and has established himself as one of the three best starting pitchers in the sport. He has won two NL Cy Young Awards in that time span and was the runner-up for the award in 2018.

Meanwhile, before 2018, Strasburg was also in an elite class. Injuries have always plagued Strasburg’s career, but, when healthy, he’s one of the best starting pitchers in the sport. Just look at what he did in 2017. Finishing with a career-best 2.52 ERA and recording 204 strikeouts in 28 starts, he was a finalist for the NL Cy Young Award. In the postseason, he surrendered zero earned runs and totaled 22 strikeouts in 14 innings pitched in two starts against the Chicago Cubs. It was the defining moment of his career, and a period of time that got the baseball world’s attention. But after his postseason heroics, Strasburg made just 22 starts in 2018 due to injury, limiting his output.

Scherzer and Strasburg have been the featured aspect of the Nationals for the last three years, and with Corbin now in the fold, injury is the only factor that could hold them back. While he has been shaky over the last two seasons, right-hander Tanner Roark has made 30-plus starts in each of the last three seasons and has pitched in the postseason. Joe Ross has recovered from Tommy John surgery and could crack the rotation next season. Or, manager Dave Martinez could go with young right-hander Erick Fedde.

The right-hander who doesn’t get the starting nod every fifth day could help bolster the Nationals bullpen. Sean Doolittle is one of the best closers in the sport, Justin Miller showed glimpses of reliability in the late innings last season, and the additions of Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal deepen the Nationals pen. But the addition of another backend reliever and either Ross or Fedde would be beneficial for their pitching staff.

At the plate, the Nationals quietly have the makings of a productive and intriguing lineup. If and when Bryce Harper officially departs in free agency, Anthony Rendon will become the driving force of the Nationals offense. After a second consecutive season hitting above .300 and compiling 192 RBIs over the last two seasons, taking on such a role shouldn’t be an issue for the third baseman, especially with the bats around him.

Trea Turner‘s average has dipped in each of the last two seasons, but he’s still a balanced hitter who can hit anywhere in the order and wreak havoc on the basepaths. Juan Soto took the baseball world by storm in 2018, coming up from Double-A and hitting .292 with 22 home runs and 70 RBIs. There may be some bumps in the road in his second season in the majors, but Soto has a smooth, level swing that can do damage. Another top prospect, outfielder Victor Robles, may get the starting nod in center field going forward, and he has the ability to track down fly balls with ease and get on base with his contact plate approach.

The Nationals lineup also features some proven veterans. Ryan Zimmerman is always an X-Factor, but the first baseman is still a source of power in the middle of the order and a positive veteran influence. Adam Eaton is arguably the Nationals best contact hitter and has hovered his average around .300 in the 118 games he has played with them over the last two years.

The Nationals also acquired All-Star catcher Yan Gomes, a proven commodity behind the plate and one of the best hitting catchers in the sport, from the Cleveland Indians. And for days that Gomes doesn’t play, the Nationals have free agent signee Kurt Suzuki — who is a steady force at the plate — to start in his place. If Gomes and Suzuki combine to start 162 games, the Nationals will have one of the most reliable catching units in the sport.

With that said, the Nationals will have legitimate competition in the National League East. The Atlanta Braves are the team to beat in the NL East until proven otherwise after winning the division in 2018 and adding veteran third baseman Josh Donaldson; the Philadelphia Phillies acquired All-Star shortstop Jean Segura and have been said to be looking to make more big moves; the New York Mets acquired Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz from the Seattle Mariners.

But the Braves, Phillies, and Mets aren’t sure things. The Braves have to prove that last season was not a fluke, could potentially lose Nick Markakis and Anibal Sanchez to free agency, and have holes in their bullpen; the Phillies were one of the worst offensive teams in MLB in 2018 and have an unstable bullpen; the Mets have certainly improved and are a Wild Card threat, but one injury to a position player will challenge their thin bench.

Outside of the NL East, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the back-to-back NL pennant winners and have arguably the deepest roster in the NL; the Milwaukee Brewers were one game away from reaching the World Series; the Colorado Rockies have a deep lineup and an improving starting rotation; the St. Louis Cardinals added Paul Goldschmidt to an 88-win roster.

The Nationals have been a model of inconsistency for the better part of this decade. One year they look great, and the next year they fall off a cliff. Or, they simply are unable to escape the National League Division Series. But it can’t stop them from improving their ballclub, and the roster the Nationals have assembled, for the meantime, is an improvement over what they finished the 2018 season with.

Health is the most pivotal factor to the Nationals success. But if Corbin, Strasburg, and Scherzer can start 30 games apiece, the Nationals will be a force to be reckoned with in 2019.

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