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The top priority in the National League East is pitching. Teams that have an abundance of strong arms should contend in 2021, while teams without them look to struggle mightily.
The Washington Nationals are among three teams in the division that helped themselves to some of the game’s top pitchers. The Nats got themselves two of an even rarer commodity, left-handed pitchers, signing a pair of the game’s top southpaws to boost their rotation and their bullpen. The result looks to be the deepest pitching staff the Nats have ever assembled and one of the most experienced in baseball this season.
The Nats’ division rivals have improved their pitching staffs as well. Atlanta made a big splash by signing veteran right-hander Charlie Morton, a 13-year veteran with 93 career wins, a couple of pennants, and a 2017 World Series championship under his belt. They also acquired left-hander Drew Smyly, a journeyman with a .500 career record (35-35) over 10 big league seasons with nine different organizations.
The New York Mets boosted a rotation that already includes two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom with a couple big trades. Their haul included right-hander Carlos Carrasco, who is 88-73 with a 3.77 ERA in 10 seasons with Cleveland, and lefty Joey Lucchesi, who is 18-20 with a 4.21 ERA in three seasons with San Diego. They could also be the front-runners to sign the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, free agent Trevor Bauer.
The Nats turned to the free-agent market for their double dip of lefties. Jon Lester has 193 wins over 15 big league seasons with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, with three World Series rings. Brad Hand has pitched ten seasons for three teams, accumulating 105 saves and 624 strikeouts with a 3.65 ERA, including a 2.78 mark the last three years in Cleveland. He’s been selected to three All-Star teams by his peers and major league managers, not fan voting.
Lester will join a rotation that already boasts three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, 2019 World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, and versatile lefty Patrick Corbin.
Those top four spots account for a combined 37 years of major league pitching experience, with 551 wins between them. They’ve combined for 8,073 strikeouts in their big league careers.
Competing for the fifth spot will be three young veterans. Austin Voth has been in the majors for three seasons, Erick Fedde for four, and Joe Ross for five.
This is certainly the most experienced rotation assembled in Washington since the team moved from Montreal in 2005, and likely the deepest. One could argue that the 2019 rotation, with Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Anìbal Sànchez, and Fedde was almost as deep, but none of those pitchers came into the season with a World Series ring, and only Scherzer had any major hardware on his shelf.
Judging bullpen depth is more subjective, but the one heading into Spring Training is certainly one of the organization’s deepest. It’s also worth considering that general manager Mike Rizzo has made most of his major bullpen acquisitions in-season, rather than beforehand, so the team has a head start coming into 2021.
Hand will join incumbent closer Daniel Hudson, an 11-year veteran, and set-up man Will Harris, who’s played nine seasons and won a World Series with Houston in 2017. Those three will give the Nats their most experienced back end since they entered the 2018 season with Sean Doolittle (six years), Brandon Kintzler (eight years), and Ryan Madson (12 years).
Then you add the youngsters who showed promise last season, Tanner Rainey (2.66 ERA, 0.738 WHIP in 20 1⁄3 innings) and Kyle Finnegan (2.92 ERA, 27 strikeouts in 24 2⁄3 innings). They will give manager Davey Martinez better options to kill a mid-inning rally than he’s had in the past three seasons.
Put together, they give the Nats the deepest and most experienced pitching staff to play in Washington since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005. On one-year contracts, Lester and Hand will not only be pitching for the present, but for their professional futures as well.
Injuries and fatigue are always a concern, especially for guys who have not pitched a 162-game season since 2019. But for experience and depth, the 2021 Nationals pitching staff is unmatched by any of its predecessors in Washington, and possibly in all of baseball this season.