The current version of the Washington Nationals reminds people of a lot of different teams. There have been comparison made to the 2006 Tigers and the 2008 Rays by different people this season, but there is another comparison. This one isn’t so much with the team as it is with three starting pitchers that have a chance to pitch together for a long time.
Before the 1993 season the Braves stole the biggest free agent on the market, Greg Maddux, from the Cubs and out of the open arms of the Yankees. It was the start of something magical. A collection of three dominant starters in Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. Those three would pitch as part of the same rotation until Smoltz went into the bullpen in 2001, Glavine left for the division rival Mets in 2003, and Maddux departed for the Cubs in 2004, but for eight seasons they were the most dominate top of the rotation baseball has ever seen.
There are a few key differences between the Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz rotation and the Nationals Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann rotation. The first and most obvious is that 1993 was Smoltz’s sixth season in the majors and Glavine’s seventh, and before being signed by the Braves before the 1993 season Maddux had pitched seven seasons for the Cubs. For the most part the Braves big three were all experienced veterans by the time they joined forces.
That doesn’t mean the two can’t be compared. The Braves had two 20 game winners as part of that rotation and with Gio at 16 wins with about 8 starts left and Strasburg at 14 wins with 5-7 starts left it is possible that the Nats could have two 20 game winners as well. The big point on this is that 1993 was a different time and while the Braves did have Kent Merker and Pete Smith make 20 starts between them they basically had a four man rotation. It is a lot easier to get 20 wins when pitching 36 games as opposed to the 33 Gio is on pace for, and it is nearly impossible when on a 160-180 innings limit like Stephen Strasburg.
In 1993 Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz averaged 0.148 WAR per game, while in 2012 the Nats three of Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann have averaged 0.154. Those numbers are very close and the two rotations are comparable as far as talent goes. The Nationals have the smart and savvy Strasburg as their Ace, the lefty Gio as the pitcher that is almost as good as their Ace but not quite, and the bulldog who isn’t afraid to challenge any batter in Jordan Zimmermann. It is a very Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz type set-up. There are some differences, but as far as results go the 2012 Nationals top three have averaged just about the same WAR per start as the big three of the 1993 Braves.
The real key to the comparison is that Jordan Zimmermann is scheduled to be the first of the three to leave the Nationals and that won’t happen until after the 2015 season, and it is very likely that the Nationals will try to work out an extension with Zimmermann as soon as this off-season. The Nationals would be very smart to keep the Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann rotation together as long as they can, and while it might not reach the eight seasons the Braves got out of their big three it can still be very productive.