Opinion: Time to Move Patrick Corbin to the Bullpen
It’s early in the 2023 baseball pre-season. For Nationals left-handed starting pitcher Patrick Corbin, 33, it is no longer early in his career. But I think moving Corbin to the Nats bullpen cannot happen soon enough. What kind of bullpen role? Anything but “opener.”
In his first start of the Grapefruit League on Tuesday versus the St. Louis Cardinals, Corbin gave up two home runs in the first inning. The home runs came off the bats of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. No shame in that, but they were back-to-back. Goldschmidt’s dinger was just out of reach of Victor Robles in left-center field and may have been wind aided. But Arenado’s blast to center field cleared the 406-foot mark.
If it wasn’t Patrick Corbin, who faced eight batters and was lifted by manager Davey Martinez with two outs in the second inning (yikes), this wouldn’t be cause for much concern. To Corbin’s credit, he threw 16 of his 22 pitches for strikes, induced two ground ball outs, and struck out two. But if Corbin wants to be a different pitcher this season, this was exactly not how he wanted it to begin.
In the last two years, Corbin has given up 64 homers. That’s…a lot. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Corbin is making $24 million in 2023 and will make $35 million next year. That’s…a lot. So, the Nats can’t move him to another team. The Nationals also won’t be sending Corbin down to the minor leagues for any extended length of time unless it’s for rehab.
Ballplayers often benefit from a change of scenery. So maybe Martinez and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey can think about a non-starting role for Corbin that could salvage his final two years in the District.
Who’s going to fill his role in the starting rotation?
Chris Archer is still an available free agent, but he’s 34 and his asking price is probably too high. Hopefully, someone else will blossom in the pre-season. In terms of in-house aspirants for starting pitcher, there’s RHP Thad Ward acquired in the Rule 5 draft from Boston over the winter. Jackson Rutledge, another righty, is another candidate that could rise through the system in relatively short time. Although he hasn’t been a starter since 2015 with Tampa Bay, righty and non-roster invitee Alex Colome is at least experienced. But Colome is also 34.
Corbin is paid too much to work out of the bullpen? OK. He’s paid too much to be one of the worst starting pitchers in MLB the last two years too.
He won’t eat enough innings for the Nats as a reliever in 2023? Corbin was a bit of a workhorse in 2021 and 2022, logging at least 150 innings in both. Last season, he pitched at least 5 innings in 20 of his 31 starts. Perhaps less of a workload out of the pen will make him more effective. Mixing in some less stressful situations, such as long-relief, might also benefit Corbin. My point is that it is worth a try.
Consistently blowing a game in the early innings is potentially more damaging to a rebuilding team than simply giving up late leads. Staying in each game for as long as possible is important so that team focus is not compromised, and player development can flourish.
Would a move to reliever be a demotion for Corbin? Well, he’s earned it. But in my opinion, Corbin would handle the lesser role quite well. As a proven good teammate, he might even relish it. Corbin’s value as a critical resource for the younger pitchers on the roster, especially fellow lefty McKenzie Gore, would not be diminished outside of his absence from the dugout during games. That can be worked out. Or it could allow Corbin an excuse for not giving immediate, and potentially awkward, feedback.
Remember the Title
In the 2019 postseason run, Corbin appeared in eight games. He came out of the bullpen on five of those occasions. Corbin got shelled (6 ER in 2/3 of an inning) in his first game in relief during game three of the NLCS versus the Dodgers. But he rebounded strongly enough to not allow another run as a reliever in his next 5.2 innings of work. The highlight of those innings were the three innings of brilliance in game 7 of the World Series.
I think Corbin can recapture some of that late inning effectiveness if given the opportunity. As he has already proven, Corbin can get a key out or outs in any middle-to-late inning. I would not expect a “John Smoltz” outcome by moving Corbin to a bullpen role. But he’ll be 34 in July and the change of scenery from the dugout to the pen might allow Corbin to re-focus and rejuvenate his mental and physical approaches to pitching.
In the twilight of his career, Corbin’s number of pitches left is finite. Why not conserve some of those throws and put a capable lefty in the bullpen? According to FanGraphs, the Nats projected bullpen does not contain any lefties. I see no need to keep exposing Corbin by solely using him as a starter.
Seeing number 46 jog out from behind the right field wall at Nats Park could become a welcome sight or a wistful flashback. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s getting late early out there.”