Stephen Strasburg returns, but is he missing piece for slumping Nationals?

Stephen Strasburg is off the disabled list and back in the Nationals' rotation, with Doug Fister moving to the bullpen, but will he be enough to push Washington past the Mets in the NL East?
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It’s one thing to get healthy; it’s another to get well.

That’s a painful lesson the Nationals have learned over the past three weeks. With a win in its first game after the All-Star break, Washington expanded its lead in the National League East to three games and looked forward to icing the division with the impending returns of their many injured regulars. Since then, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman have returned to action, but none have performed up to their usual standard. The Nationals have gone 7–12 since that first win of the second half, 5–7 since Rendon’s return on July 25 and 4–6 since Werth and Zimmerman came back two days later. Three of those loses occurred in a season-altering sweep at the hands of the Mets last weekend that dropped Washington into a first place tie in the East, and splitting two of four to the Diamondbacks this week has left the Nats in second place, 1 1/2 games behind New York, heading into this weekend’s set against the Rockies.

On Saturday, the Nationals will get yet another key player back from the disabled list in righthander Stephen Strasburg, who is scheduled to start the middle game of the three-game set after spending a month on the disabled list with a left oblique strain. Strasburg’s return causes a crunch in Washington's vaunted rotation thanks to the spectacular work of rookie Joe Ross, who has posed a 2.80 ERA with outstanding peripherals in seven starts. In response to that crunch, the team has decided to move Doug Fister, who was their best pitcher down the stretch and into the postseason last year, to the bullpen.

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That is the right move. Fister, who earlier this season spent a month on the DL with a strained flexor tendon in his pitching elbow, has struggled since his return, posting a 4.86 ERA in eight starts, only three of which were quality, none of them consecutive. In fact, Fister hasn’t been right all year, posting his lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.67) since his brief rookie season in 2009 and struggling to get his usual proportion of ground balls, resulting in his highest home-run rate since '09. Fister has also seen his velocity drop this year: He's averaged above 90 mph with his fastball in just one of his seven major league seasons, per, but this year the pitch has fallen under 87 mph, the lowest it's ever been in his major league career. As a 31-year-old pitcher with low strikeout rates who is due to become a free agent after this season, Fister’s days in the Nationals’ rotation were numbered to begin with. Now that the team has better options, removing him from the rotation is the best call.

Strasburg, despite his 5.16 ERA on the season, should indeed be a better option. After returning from his first DL stay in late June—a trapezius strain cost him nearly a month—Strasburg appeared to be much improved relative to his early-season struggles. In three starts after coming back, one limited to five innings by a pitch count and another ending after 3 2/3 innings due to his oblique strain, he allowed just two runs in 15 2/3 innings, striking out 18. In those starts he showed improved velocity, hitting 99 mph in his one unencumbered outing, as well as an improved ability to get hitters to swing and miss. Strasburg seemed to have lowered all of the red flags that his poor start to the season had raised, even regaining the effectiveness of his changeup in the two starts that followed that one. The Nationals thus have good reason to be optimistic about Strasburg’s return.

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They also have good reason to want to keep Ross in their rotation. One of the two prospects the Nationals received from the Padres in the three-team trade that sent Steven Souza Jr. to the Rays and Wil Myers to the Padres last December, the 22-year-old Ross, who is the younger brother of Padres righty Tyson Ross, has emerged much faster than expected this season, but he has clearly earned the right to keep his spot in a rotation that looked like it would be hard to crack in March. Ross didn’t reach Double A until late July of last year, but he excelled at the level to start this season and was called up directly to the majors to replace Strasburg in early June, impressing in three starts, the latter two of which saw him strike out 19 against two walks in 15 1/3 innings, allowing a total of just three runs. After a brief respite in Triple A, where he appears to have been kept to a strict limit of five innings or 80 pitches over five starts, Ross returned to replace Strasburg again after the All-Star break and has since had four more quality starts in as many outings, posting a 2.92 ERA and striking out 24 men in 24 2/3 innings against just two walks.

While Ross has clearly exceeded expectations, his success appears to have a strong foundation. Working primarily with a mid-90s fastball he can sink and spike to 97 mph and a wipeout slider, he has posted a phenomenal 11.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 45 major league innings, striking out more than a man per frame and generating an excess of ground balls. That pitcher is simply too good to bump from the rotation in favor of a struggling impending free agent with declining velocity. With the move of Fister to the bullpen, it now appears that Ross, who is under team control for six more years, has become a permanent member of Washington's starting five.

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That’s all encouraging, but what’s masked by the focus on Strasburg’s return and resulting repercussions on the rotation is the fact that pitching is not the Nationals’ problem. Despite beating the Braves, 8–3, on Thursday night behind Ross’s latest gem, Washington has scored just 3.7 runs per game since the All-Star break and just 3.5 runs per game since Werth and Zimmerman rejoined Rendon in the lineup. Some of that has been due to the gauntlet of elite starters the Nats have faced over that span, but to be the best, you have to beat the best, and Washington has struggled to do that over the last two weeks.

Indeed, it’s not as though the Nationals won’t have to face pitchers of that quality repeatedly over the remainder of the season. Already they’re set to face the Dodgers' Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw again next week as they start a potentially troublesome road trip through Los Angeles, San Francisco and Colorado. Then there’s the six games they have remaining against the now first-place Mets, including the final three games of the season in New York, which promise more of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard, the three pitchers who helped the Mets sweep their way into first place last weekend; New York will likely do what it can to line up those three for those series.

Replacing Fister in the rotation should make the Nats a better team (they were 1–4 in his last five starts), but to recapture the division, they’ll need to improve on both sides of the ball. The only reinforcement they can count on offensively is centerfielder Denard Span, who is expected to return from a back injury next week.