The Braves started the offseason by signing former MVP Josh Donaldson. The Mets added Edwin Díaz and Robinson Canó. The Phillies traded for Jean Segura. And on Tuesday, the Nationals fired up the hot stove, too, signing Patrick Corbin, the best free-agent pitcher on the market, to a six-year deal and fully joining the frenzy in the NL East.
Corbin, the former Diamondback, was a fine if unremarkable starter before 2018. The lefty had pitched well in 2013 but then missed a year after having Tommy John surgery, and his career park-adjusted ERA and FIP before last season were both just 3 percent better than average. At 29 years old without an eye-popping pitch or statline, Corbin seemed to be the exact kind of pitcher being deemphasized—and almost completely phased out of the free-agent market—in this era of times-through-the-order penalties and expanded, creative bullpen usage.
And then Corbin enjoyed the contract year of all contract years. He finished fifth in a terrifically crowded NL Cy Young vote and checked every box an interested suitor might desire. Durability? Check—he threw 200 innings on the dot. Effectiveness? Check—his 3.15 ERA ranked 15th among qualified starters and his 2.47 FIP third, one spot ahead of new teammate Max Scherzer. A reason for his newfound success? Check—more than half of his pitches last season were off-speed, and a new and useful curveball paired with the most devastatingly valuable slider in the majors last season allowed Corbin to set career bests in strikeout rate, home run rate, and batting average against.
Starters who can strike out 30 percent of opposing hitters don’t often become available, and the bidding war Corbin sparked reflects the value such a pitcher can bring every fifth day. So, too, does his contract, which the Nationals offered to beat out the Phillies and Yankees: $140 million spread over six years, with some amount of that money, as is typical for the Nats, deferred.
Such a commitment carries copious risk, of course, as the Cubs can attest after last season’s highest-paid pitcher in free agency—Yu Darvish, who also signed for six years and nine figures—spent his first season in Chicago alternately injured and ineffective. Corbin already has an elbow injury in his past, and he’s sitting on just one good season in his past four. That good one was outrageously good, but it’s still just one.
Yet if Corbin can turn in a second good season, and a third and a fourth, and so on, the Nationals stand to reap tremendous benefit. The team is desperate for the factor, whatever it may be, that can move it past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the move to D.C., but last season, it didn’t even have the chance to lose painfully in a five-game NLDS. The Nationals were the one potential superteam that didn’t activate in 2018; they started slow and never quite found a winning rhythm, and their 82-80 final record marked the worst of Bryce Harper’s career.
Even if Harper leaves in free agency, though—as finances alone might dictate at this point, with Corbin’s contract now on the books alongside the roughly $180 million Washington already had earmarked for the 2019 roster—the Nats still looked well-positioned to compete in 2019 before signing Corbin. A lineup with Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Adam Eaton, and über-prospect Víctor Robles will still score plenty of runs, and as their divisional competitors made louder news with their additions, the Nationals quietly solidified their catcher position by signing Kurt Suzuki and trading for All-Star Yan Gomes. A solid lineup is in place, and Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Corbin forge a starting trio that might be the best in the National League—if it’s even the best in the division, that is, as Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and a resurgent Zack Wheeler in New York might quibble with that designation.
With Scherzer signed for three more seasons and Strasburg the next five (albeit with the ability to opt out after either the 2019 or 2020 seasons), the Nationals have committed to their pitching core of both the present and future, and it’s hard to blame them for making this choice. Corbin doesn’t have the same track record of either of his new teammates, but his potential if he maintains 2018’s gains is nearly as high. Unlike with other members of this free-agent pitching group, it requires no projection for still-untapped promise (as in the case of Nathan Eovaldi) or hope for a recapture of the more distant past (as in the case of Dallas Keuchel) to imagine Corbin as a pitcher worth an early start in a playoff series; the newest National was exactly that good just last season.
Even if he throws as well next season, he still might not receive a game 1 or 2 playoff start, but that says less about Corbin or the Washington franchise’s penchant for postseason misfortune, and more about its rotation’s towering top-level quality. Washington could still use a fifth starter to round out the rotation after Tanner Roark, but it helps to have a big three as dynamic as this one.