VIERA, Fla. — Some people believe the Washington Nationals’ starting rotation has the potential to be historic.
Pitching coach Steve McCatty is not one of those people.
“They’re all historic,” he quipped. “Because once you write it down, whatever it is, it’s history.”
That word — “historic” — has followed the Nationals’ starting rotation for more than a month now. It pops up in radio talk shows and online message boards, in casual conversations at the bar and the occasional press conference. Some people use it because they ran out of others. Great? No. The best in baseball? Not strong enough.
The Nationals held their first two workouts for pitchers and catchers over the weekend in the presence of sky-high expectations, none greater than those facing the starting rotation. Last season, that group went 70-49 with a major league best 3.04 cumulative ERA. Then it added Max Scherzer, a former Cy Young Award winner, and the expectations grew again.
Manager Matt Williams believes high expectations, when understood and accepted, can be a positive thing. However, that doesn’t mean he buys into historical speculation.
“The word historic, I don’t think we can put in our vocabulary at this point,” Williams said. “We haven’t gotten there yet. This is spring training. We don’t know. All we have to do is look to last year to know that we don’t know what can happen.”
The Nationals can also look to last year as the source of these “historic” hopes. Substitute Scherzer for fifth starter Tanner Roark and the Nationals’ starting rotation would have finished with a cumulative ERA of 2.99 in 2014. The 1998 Atlanta Braves rotation, which featured three Hall-of-Famers and is among the best of all-time, had an ERA of 2.97.
Comparisons such as that give fans reason to hope — but that hope only exists on paper.
“You can be as good as you want on paper, but that doesn’t mean anything until the end of the year,” Scherzer said. “We’ve got to stay healthy. We’ve got to go out and execute the way that we know we can. Obviously I think we’re as talented as anybody in the league right now. And on paper, we look great. That doesn’t mean anything when you go out there during the season, because everybody’s going to be gunning for us and everybody’s going to want to take their best shot at us.”
On Thursday, Gio Gonzalez was similarly dismissive of the “historic” title.
“I think we’re just happy to all be healthy, to be honest,” he said. “Other than that, I mean, it’s just playing it cool I guess. … We have such a great group of guys that we don’t really think that far in advance like you guys. We just want to play the game and have fun while doing it.”
As McCatty stood behind the familiar row of bullpen mounds at the team’s minor league complex this weekend, he didn’t see a group poised to re-write the history books. He simply saw a group of arms that is capable of winning games.
On Saturday, the team’s longtime pitching coach got his first real glimpse of Scherzer, who threw an eight-minute bullpen session one rubber away from Stephen Strasburg. On Sunday, he leaned on a chain-link fence as three other potential aces — Gonzalez, Doug Fister, and Jordan Zimmermann — completed their first day of work.
“With those guys, I’m not looking for anything,” McCatty said with a chuckle. “I’m just making sure they’re not injured, that’s all.”
Fans lined the fences to watch Scherzer and Strasburg at work Saturday. They stood on their tip-toes see over the fence to see the two dominant right-handers throw fastball after fastball across the turf. When the duo left to practice bunting on an adjacent field, streams of fans followed. Sunday’s trio of starters received similar attention. It’s something that grows with expectations.
Williams, for one, has no concerns about all of that. He’s not worried about the expectations this rotation will face, nor whether those expectations will affect the players themselves. The second-year skipper knows they will put in the necessary work. And with good fortune in the health department, he knows the results will follow.
“They will be prepared, they will take the mound, and they will give us a chance on that given day to win. And I think that’s all they’re really concerned about,” Williams said. “It makes for good copy and it makes for good conversation, but at this point, we’re about the process of getting through spring training and making sure everybody is ready to go and start the season.”