Around the Horn: If healthy, rotation could carry Nats

Scherzer, Strasburg lead group, expected to be ready for Spring Training

Around the Horn: If healthy, rotation could carry Nats

The Nationals have already packed up their truck full of equipment, and the start of Spring Training is drawing closer. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to West Palm Beach, Fla., by Feb. 14, and it's time to break down the Nats' roster.

This is the latest installment of a multipart Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at the projected starters and backups heading into the season. This one examines Washington's starting pitchers.

Around the Horn: Catcher | First base | Second base | Third base | Shortstop | Outfield

WASHINGTON -- Starting pitching was perhaps the biggest and most consistent strength for the Nationals last season. They rode that strong rotation to 95 wins and the National League East title in 2016, and they will be counting on much of the same in '17.

Washington is returning the same five starting pitchers who finished last season with the second-best ERA in MLB (3.60), the second-best Fielding Independent Pitching (3.61), the second-best Wins Above Replacement (18.1) and the most strikeouts per nine innings (9.25).

Max Scherzer leads the group after winning the NL Cy Young Award last season, his second Cy Young honor. He became the first pitcher to lead the NL in wins, innings, strikeouts and WHIP since Sandy Koufax in 1965. Scherzer was scheduled to pitch in the World Baseball Classic, but he had to withdraw due to a stress fracture in his right ring finger knuckle. Despite the injury, he is expected to be ready for Spring Training, and he should continue to be the ace of this rotation and one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Stephen Strasburg is also expected to be ready for the start of camp, and he is enjoying a normal offseason despite the torn right pronator tendon that ended his season last year. The injury robbed the Nats of having Scherzer and Strasburg as a formidable top-of-the-rotation duo for the postseason, but they plan on adjusting Strasburg's throwing program so he can remain healthy for the entire season. Strasburg was an NL Cy Young Award candidate during the first half of 2016, and he can still be a dominant pitcher, so Washington is counting on him.

Outlook: Strasburg, SP, WSH

One of the reasons the Nats' rotation was one of the best in 2016 was the breakout season from Tanner Roark. After spending a year bouncing from the rotation to the bullpen, Roark impressed, throwing more than 200 innings over 33 starts.

Rounding out the back of the rotation is right-hander Joe Ross, who missed two months last season with a right shoulder injury, and left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who is coming off the worst season of his career. Keeping Ross healthy will be key, as he has proven to be an above-average starter when he is on the mound. Gonzalez had some bad luck last season; his strikeout rates were near his career norms and he cut down on walks, but his 4.57 ERA was among the worst for starters. He has proven to be durable, but he needs to find a way to be more consistent.

What the Nationals lack is starting-pitching depth, especially considering the injury histories of both Strasburg and Ross. Their depth took a hit when they traded away Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez this offseason, but they have a few young pitchers ready to step in and take their place. A.J. Cole would almost certainly be the sixth starter today if necessary, with Austin Voth expected to make his Major League debut at some point in 2017 and Erick Fedde also making strides in the Minors.

Washington signed veteran right-hander Vance Worley to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training, and he could be in line to compete as a long reliever and potential starter. The Nats also signed righty Jeremy Guthrie to a similar deal Friday.

Starting pitching carried the Nationals in 2016, and it is expected to play a major role in '17. Their lack of depth could hurt them if the starters sustain injuries, but if they all remain healthy, they could carry the Nats to another division title and beyond.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.