Now with Max Scherzer, Nationals’ rotation could be historically elite

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The Nationals have signed right-hander Max Scherzer to a seven-year deal worth more than $180 million, which now gives them a rotation that could be historically great. Even before the addition of Scherzer, it was already going to be tough to deal with, just as it was last season. Now with Scherzer in the fold, Tanner Roark, who had a 2.85 ERA in 31 starts this past season, likely moves to the bullpen until (if) the Nationals trade one of their starters.

Here’s a look at how each pitcher has performed over the past three seasons:

Name W L GS IP K% BB% GB% HR/FB ERA
Tanner Roark 22 11 36 252.1 17.8% 5.0% 43.1% 6.4% 2.57
Jordan Zimmermann 45 22 96 608.2 20.1% 4.5% 43.9% 8.3% 2.96
Stephen Strasburg 37 26 92 557.1 28.0% 6.5% 47.3% 12.0% 3.10
Doug Fister 40 25 83 534.1 17.8% 4.7% 51.7% 10.1% 3.22
Max Scherzer 55 15 97 622.1 28.6% 7.1% 36.5% 8.7% 3.24
Gio Gonzalez 42 26 91 553.2 24.5% 9.1% 45.7% 7.5% 3.25

(Data courtesy FanGraphs)

With Zimmermann set to hit free agency after the season, he appears to be the most likely to be traded. Fister could also be moved, but as he is about three years older than Zimmermann, he wouldn’t bring a comparable return in a trade. Strasburg is reportedly available in a trade, but the Nationals have him under team control through 2016.

Since 1969 — when the pitcher’s mound was lowered — only 23 pitching staffs have finished a season with a combined ERA below 3.00, per Baseball Reference. If you exclude the strike-shortened season of 1981, that number falls to 21. The 1972 Orioles, with the four-headed beast of Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, and Dave McNally have the record for the lowest aggregate ERA for a pitching staff at 2.58. That same year, the Athletics set the second-best rotation ERA at 2.64 behind Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom, Vida Blue, and Dave Hamilton.

The most recent threat to the title for best rotation occurred in 2011 with the Phillies (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels), but their aggregate 2.86 ERA ranks 10th. Adjusted for park factors and league strength, however, they do move up a few notches. The 1992 Braves are the only other rotation on the list since 1990.

The Nationals last year led the league in rotation ERA at 3.04 ahead of the Dodgers’ 3.20 mark. Take out Roark, who was a prime regression candidate (his 2.85 ERA beat his xFIP by nearly a full run), with Scherzer, and you have a rotation that could challenge the Phillies as the best modern starting rotation. If the Nationals decide to keep Zimmermann, Fister, and Strasburg, and they enjoy good fortune — both in terms of on-the-field results and pitcher health — they could climb the ranks as one of the best starting rotations in the era of the lowered mound.

Mariners agree to a six-year contract with prospect Evan White

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This is a rare one: the Mariners have signed first base prospect Evan White — a player who has yet to play a game above Double-A — to a six-year, $24 million contract. The deal has three club options as well that, if exercised, could make it max out at $55.5 million over nine years.

White was the M’s first round pick in the 2017 draft, going 17th overall out of the University of Kentucky. In 2019 he played at Double-A Arkansas in the Texas League, hitting .293/.350/.488 with 18 home runs, striking out 92 times and walking 29 times in 92 games. It’s a good line in a league that is pretty pitcher-friendly. Stuart also reportedly plays excellent defense at first base.

Clearly the Mariners consider White a part of their future, but unless White flames out early in his career, he’s leaving a lot of potential money on the table.

White turns 24 early next season, which means that, even if he begins the 2020 season in the majors, starting his major league service time clock on Opening Day, he wouldn’t reach free agency until he’s poised to begin his age-33 season, assuming the Mariners exercise those options. If the Mariners place him in Triple A for anything beyond a couple of weeks to start next season, that changes to his age-34 season. A full year of Triple-A action and even some modest service time manipulation by the M’s in 2021 would put it off even longer.

At the same time, a team is unlikely to want to pay a guy millions to toil in the minors — and the M’s are guaranteeing themselves as many as nine years of White’s services — so the threat of service time manipulation is greatly reduced. Which means that, if he hits, he plays. Of course, if he hits well and continues to do so, the Mariners will have a considerable bargain on their hands, with a potential franchise cornerstone locked up at an average of $6 million and change a year for nearly a decade.

As we’ve noted so often when discussing extensions with young players, that’s the tradeoff. After today, White could hit like Mario Mendoza, field like Dick Stuart and be drummed out of baseball before he’s 30 and, assuming he’s even moderately sensible, still have enough money to set himself up for life. If he turns into a real star he’ll make less than half of what he’s worth in his career. His alternative: wait at least four years and maybe five to reach arbitration and three more after that until he can be a free agent. Assuming arbitration and free agency exist after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021.

So, let’s check back in a few years before passing ultimate judgment.