New Sheriff in Town?

Evaluating whether the Nats should experiment with Stephen Strasburg as the ace

By: Joe Pohoryles

Five All-Star selections, three NL strikeout championships, two Cy Youngs and one World Series ring later, Max Scherzer sits as the most decorated pitcher in Nationals history, and among the best of his generation.

Since being acquired in 2015 free agency, Mad Max has dominated as the team’s ace, racking up individual accolades before finally capturing the highest team accomplishment in his fifth season with the team. What was initially viewed as the worst contract of the 2015 offseason quickly turned into a bargain, and Scherzer is still under contract for two more seasons.

As the Nats begin defending their crown starting on March 26, Scherzer is set to take the mound at Citi Field as the Opening Day starter for the sixth year in a row.

But should he?

Well, yes, he should. He’s as great an option as they come. He has always been the team’s ace, and assuming he is healthy and ready to go, he should be on the mound Opening Day.

So why even pose that question? Well, looking at the past six months and into the future, the decision may not be so cut and dry. It is worth wondering if it is time for the Nationals to begin transitioning Stephen Strasburg into the starting rotation’s top spot. If not for Opening Day, then perhaps later in the season.

I’ll be the first to admit this is a fairly arbitrary conflict, as the distinction between the real No. 1 and the deputy does not have much significance until the postseason. However, for a guy like Strasburg, who prefers to stay out of the limelight, it may be worth easing him into that ace spot.

These four separate events from the past six months make the ace pitching situation slightly less secure than it has been for the past five years:

July 13: Scherzer lands on 10-day Injured List

Scherzer has long been lauded for his durability. He had been on the IL — formerly known as the Disabled List (DL) — just twice entering 2019, his twelfth major league season. For 10 consecutive seasons (2009-2018), Scherzer made at least 30 starts.

On July 13, however, a mid-back strain landed him on the 10-day IL. (Note: the move retroactively started on July 10.) He returned to make one start, an 8-7 loss to the Colorado Rockies on July 25, before landing on the IL again on July 29 after reaggravating the strain.

In about two weeks, he doubled his career IL trip total. This came just a month after he won NL Pitcher of the Month for June, one of the best stretches of his career that kept him firmly in the Cy Young race. Those two IL stints may have been brief, but Mad Max looked mortal for the first time in his career.

October 1: Strasburg rescues NL Wild Card Game

Juan Soto will always be labeled the hero for his go-ahead bloop single in the bottom of the eighth inning, and rightfully so, but it was Strasburg who came in to keep the Nats in the game after Scherzer let up three early runs.

Stras allowed just two hits over three innings in relief, striking out four batters. Now, the Nats developed a tendency of letting up early runs before locking down and stealing the game back late throughout the title run — regardless of who was on the mound — but without Strasburg’s pitching, the run would have ended before it even started.

The Wild Card game was the first instance of that trend, and perhaps it was symbolic that Strasburg took over for a struggling Scherzer to save the game, almost a passing of the torch.

October 30: Strasburg earns World Series MVP in all-time great postseason performance

While he did not pitch in the World Series-clinching Game 7, he did receive his World Series MVP trophy to cap off an all-time great postseason performance. He finished the postseason 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA and 47 strikeouts across 36.1 innings pitched (11.717 K’s per nine innings pitched) while holding opposing batters to a .239 OBP.

Two of those five wins came against eventual 2019 AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros, the second of which saw Stras pitch the lights out in a career-defining performance to force Game 7.

The Nats would not have won the World Series without Strasburg. They also would not have won without Scherzer. Thankfully both will be back in 2020, but it seems Strasburg has shown he is more than ready to be the ace of this team if he is called to that role.

December 9: Strasburg signs seven-year, $245 million deal with Nationals after opting out of current contract following World Series

Stras agreed to the then-record deal for a pitcher — shortly eclipsed by World Series opponent Gerrit Cole — to lock him up as a “National for life,” as he put it himself. He was drafted first overall in 2009 to begin a new era in DC, and 10 years later he helped bring the team its first championship. Now, he is in a position to play in Washington for his entire career, and possibly one day become the Nats’ first homegrown Hall of Famer.

Scherzer will turn 36 in July, so it is all but certain that he will be gone before Strasburg’s contract is up, meaning Strasburg will have to step up to the No. 1 spot eventually. Plus, Scherzer dealt with health issues that lingered through the postseason, even preventing him from starting Game 5 of the World Series. He should be 100 percent for Opening Day, but who knows if he will be as reliable as before.

Strasburg has a much longer track record for health concerns, but at 31 years old, coming off a season in which he pitched over 200 innings for just the second time in his career, he has proven he is capable of staying healthy.

Scherzer is still great, and deserves to be at the top of the rotation. I am not saying a swap should be made just yet. The truth is that as Scherzer ages, as much of a monster as he is, he will eventually begin to decline.

Strasburg has never excelled in the ace role, but it has also been awhile since he had that spot to begin with. He has already delivered in the highest pressure moments, so any concerns with how he’ll fare may be unjustified. This may not be a pressing issue right now, but if Scherzer begins to fall off, or Stras carries his dominance over from October, it could lead to a new No. 1.

(Cover Photo Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

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