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The Nationals’ arms race

The addition of Max Scherzer gives the Nationals an embarrassment of riches in the starting rotation. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

WASHINGTON — It looked like the Nationals were piling on when they signed Max Scherzer in January.

Why did they need to add a Cy Young Award-winner to what was already the best starting rotation in baseball? Now, after a couple of months to think it over, it seems like a brilliant move (as long as I don’t have to write the paychecks).

Scherzer gives the Nats a bona fide ace. In recent years, Stephen Strasburg was given that role, along with the Opening Day start. He wanted it, but didn’t always flourish in it.

Jordan Zimmermann probably deserved the honor, but the team appeared reluctant to make that move over Strasburg, possibly deciding to go with star power.

What Scherzer’s signing does, however, is push Strasburg to third in the rotation, where he’ll rarely face an opposing team’s ace. That should translate into more run support and more wins. He had 15 in 2012 and 14 last year; I can see him pushing 20 in 2015.

The same is true for Zimmermann. He had 14 and 19 wins the past two seasons respectively. Twenty is certainly within reach, especially with the added incentive of playing on the final year of his contract and most likely his final season in D.C.

Doug Fister is in the same situation, playing for a World Series ring and a big contract. Those are big motivators.

Gio Gonzalez should also benefit from being dropped from fourth to fifth in the rotation. While it took him all of 2013 and 2014 to match his 21-win total from 2012, his ERA was still a very respectable 3.57 and 3.36 the past two years. Gonzalez also cut down his walk rate last season. I believe he’s poised to also put it all together. Scherzer pushed him in Spring Training, with good results.

Scherzer leads not only from the mound, but the dugout and clubhouse, challenging his teammates to constantly improve. When he talks, they listen. He’s quickly becoming the elder statesman on the staff.

There’s no doubt the starting five is the strength of the Nationals. Is it the best rotation ever? That remains to be seen.

While the potential is there for greatness, it’s doubtful anyone will ever match the 1971 Baltimore Orioles, whose Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson were all 20-game winners. It was a different game back then, with four-man rotations, and more complete games. The role of the closer, setup man and long reliever weren’t as clearly defined. Oh, and by the way — that Orioles team did not win the World Series, losing to the Pirates in seven games.

By strengthening their starting staff, the Nationals have strengthened their whole team. The bullpen will have a few new faces without Jerry Blevins, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano. The question remains whether Drew Storen can handle the closer’s role again. The starters may be asked to go a little longer. It’s a group that will want to.

Meanwhile, the Nats offense has struggled at times over the past three years, due to lengthy injuries to Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth. Now, at the start of the 2015 campaign, Werth, Span and Nate McLouth are still working their way back from operations and Anthony Rendon from a knee injury.

Low-scoring games may be the norm, at least in the early going. That’s why you can never have enough pitching.

And why that Max Scherzer signing is looking better and better.

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