Patrick Corbin-to-Nationals latest example of NL East team going for it

The first big free-agent pitcher is off the market: Left-hander Patrick Corbin has agreed to a six-year contract with the Washington Nationals, pending a physical, reportedly for $140 million. That is significantly more than the $126 million Yu Darvish received from the Cubs a year ago.

My first reaction: Welcome to the division of death.

The young, up-and-coming Atlanta Braves are the defending division champions. They signed third baseman Josh Donaldson and maybe have two more big moves to make, adding a starting pitcher and a corner outfielder.

The New York Mets acquired Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano from the Mariners, and new GM Brodie Van Wagenen said it’s unlikely that the team will deal Noah Syndergaard because the “chips are in” for 2019. They need to add a couple of bullpen pieces, sort out first base — maybe rookie Peter Alonso is the answer — and find a fifth starter.

The Philadelphia Phillies traded for Jean Segura — they had the worst shortstop production in the majors in 2018 — and are making a hard push for Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper.

The Nationals have signed Corbin, fixed their catching problem with Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, added relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough, and could still bring Harper back.

The Marlins? Well, they tore down a sculpture.

These are the moves the Nationals should have made last offseason, when they had the same issues: concerns about the back of the rotation, no bullpen depth and no good solutions at catcher. The rotation aside from Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg went 27-39 with a 4.69 ERA. The bullpen ranked eighth in the NL with a 4.05 ERA. The catchers ranked 27th in the majors in WAR.

In Corbin, the Nationals add a 29-year-old lefty who was one of the best starters in the majors in 2018, going 11-7 with a 3.15 ERA and 246 strikeouts in 200 innings with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Corbin doesn’t possess an overpowering fastball, but his overall swing-and-miss rate of 34.7 percent tied that of Blake Snell for highest in the majors, thanks to an unhittable slider. Corbin was one of just seven qualified starters to whiff 30 percent of the batters he faced.

Still, it’s a high-risk signing. Heck, all long-term contracts for pitchers are high risk, but this one feels even more so. Corbin had never come close to his 2018 level of dominance before. He struck out 30.8 percent of the batters he faced, compared to a previous career best of 21.9 percent. His success relied largely on batters chasing that slider out of the strike zone, and they might adapt and learn to lay off it. Also, he has had Tommy John surgery.

This is the price teams are willing to pay for a premium starting pitcher, however, even with the sordid history of so many of these deals blinking right back at them. The Nationals can perhaps take comfort in how well the Scherzer signing has worked out so far. On the other hand, they now have three pitchers signed to mega-contracts, and the success of the franchise over the next few years will rest to a large extent on the ligaments and tendons of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin remaining intact.

The best part of the early offseason in the NL East is that you have four teams trying to improve. That’s good! It’s going to make for an exciting remainder of the offseason and an exciting division race. Compare that to the American League, where most of the league has conceded playoff spots to the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros and is focusing on long-term rebuilds.

In fact, you can argue that the Nationals are the favorites for the division title. Even before the Corbin signing, FanGraphs projected the Nationals as the best team in the NL East:

Nationals: 90-72
Mets: 84-78
Braves: 83-79
Phillies: 78-84
Marlins: 67-95

I think the Braves are better than that, but I agree that the Phillies still have work to do, which is why they need to add Machado or Harper. One thing to remember about the Nationals is they arguably underachieved last season in finishing 82-80. Their run differential of plus-82 wasn’t far off the Braves’ total of plus-102, so there wasn’t a big split in talent level between the clubs.

No, the Nationals roster doesn’t include Harper, but Harper wasn’t super valuable last season. Washington is also getting a full season of Juan Soto — conservatively projected to hit .291/.393/.515 — while likely improving at catcher and in the bullpen. Although rookie outfielder Victor Robles won’t replace Harper’s power, he is projected to hit .273/.334/.416 with speed and good defense. Anthony Rendon is one of the best players in the league, and Trea Turner is one of the best all-around shortstops.

Now the Nationals have added the top pitcher available in free agency. If they get 90 to 100 starts from the big three of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, they’re going to be in the race.

Let’s see how the Braves, Mets and Phillies counter this move. Trying to win — it’s fun.


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