No offense to Josh Donaldson, Steve Pearce, and Kurt Suzuki, but it appears the first big domino has fallen in this winter’s free agent class. Patrick Corbin is reportedly set to sign a six-year contract with the Nationals, per Chelsea Janes. Jon Heyman has reported the deal is for $140 million and, as most Nationals contracts do, it includes deferrals, per Ken Rosenthal, which lower somewhat the actual value of the contract. The Diamondbacks will get a draft pick after the first round for their troubles.
This might not quite qualify as mystery team material, but the industry consensus seemed to be that Corbin was likely to sign with the Phillies or the Yankees, making the Nationals moving in a bit of a surprise. Now, it would be appropriate to say the Nationals didn’t need pitching given that they already have Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation. But it would probably be even more appropriate to say every team needs pitching, and signing a pitcher of Patrick Corbin’s quality does a lot to help the Nationals as they try to recapture the division after a disappointing season and the seemingly likely departure of Bryce Harper.
As for how Corbin will perform, our own Dan Szymborksi was kind enough to pass along the following ZiPS projections:
These projections also line up with Steamer, which projected Corbin for 3.6 WAR next year. In his ranking of free agents, Kiley McDaniel placed Corbin third behind only Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. That status as the best pitcher available likely helped Corbin to a contract that exceed’s McDaniel’s five years and $90 million, as well as the Crowd’s five years and $100 million. Szymborski did the write-up in the free agent list and said the following:
With 6.3 WAR and 11 strikeouts per game, both marks representing career highs, Corbin would have been a strong Cy Young contender in a year during which Jacob deGrom didn’t brutalize the league. Of qualifying pitchers in baseball, Corbin’s contact rate of 66.8% was behind only deGrom’s, as well. Corbin and his filthy slider enter a free-agent market in which he’s no worse than the second-best pitcher available and, in my estimation, a more alluring signing for a team than Dallas Keuchel is.
With James Paxton already traded, Cleveland no doubt asking for a considerable haul for any of their starters, and the same likely true for Noah Syndergaard, there weren’t any available pitchers who had pitched like an ace in the last few years or looked to be able to do so next season. We often hear about a crowded market for certain positions, like second base or perhaps an innings-eating starter, but unless a team wanted to give up prospects, Patrick Corbin represented a market of one for many teams in the hunt.
If Corbin hits those projections above and amasses 17 wins over six seasons, this deal is going to end up looking pretty good even if it doesn’t look quite as linear as the projection shows. A couple of seasons of five wins, maybe a year missed due to injury, and a few average years would still represent a positive outcome. Corbin will turn 35 year old just as his contract is ending, and like any long term pitching contract, that comes with considerable risk. Corbin missed all of 2014 and much of 2015 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and he pitched poorly in his first full season back just a couple years ago. He was decent in 2017, and then he came into 2018 and started throwing his slider all of time. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at the beginning of the season:
Corbin used to throw more fastballs, but his fastballs aren’t great. And Corbin used to throw more changeups, but his changeups kept getting hit around. And so we’ve gotten to here, with Corbin attempting something new: different versions of the slider, to help one play off of the next. Corbin’s best pitch has always been his slider, so why not fold in an offspeed variety? The changeup just wasn’t going to work. The slider very well might.
For the season, Corbin ended up throwing his slider and slow slider/curve 50% of the time. The increased usage did nothing to hamper the pitch’s effectiveness, as 29% of the pitches were swinging strikes and 54% of plate appearances that ended on a slider were strikeouts. The change in usage turned Corbin from mid-rotation pitcher into an ace, and if he can keep this up, he’ll be well worth the money for the Nationals.
We should say, it isn’t just the prior Tommy John that is concerning long-term. Even last season, his fastball velocity was inconsistent, as the graph below shows.
The optimist says he got his velocity back at the end of the season and even without it, he was a very good pitcher. The pessimist wonders what happens if his velocity ticks down again and eventually affects his slider. That lost velocity coincided with a lower strikeout rate and more walks. It’s hard not to see the significant risks in signing a pitcher like Corbin for six years. He’s had arm trouble in the past, velocity trouble just this last season, and he’s only had one really good year since debuting in 2012. But the deal can pay off if Corbin just has a couple more years like this last one. In a division where Atlanta and Philadelphia are trying to add to their young cores, the Nationals were already stealth favorites due to their talent on hand. This deal should cement that position.
With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in the rotation, and Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Juan Soto in the lineup along with the potential addition of Victor Robles, the Nationals are likely to be the most talented team in the division even if the Phillies sign Bryce Harper. With Rendon a free agent after next season and Scherzer likely to start to feel his age at some point, it makes sense for the Nationals to try and capitalize on this competitive window even without Harper. And taking Corbin away from potentially signing with the Phillies increases their odds of getting back to the playoffs this year, too.
As for the Yankees, their failure to offer a sixth year will probably look smart in 2024, but if James Paxton can’t stay healthy and Luis Severino’s second half problems carry over, their decision might not look so good next summer. There is some upside above the projections for Corbin, and the Nationals decided to pay for it.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.