It’s been just a few days since Super Bowl LVII and we are officially in the early stages of the upcoming MLB season as pitchers and catchers reported to spring training as early as this past Monday morning. Pitching has always been the strong suit for the Washington Nationals, but ever since losing Stephen Strasburg to injury and trading away future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer, pitching has become Washington’s biggest weakness.
In the aforementioned Scherzer trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline in 2021 (which also included star shortstop Trea Turner), the Nationals received two stud MLB-ready prospects in right handed pitcher Josiah Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz. Since that trade went through, however, the Nats have had one of the worst pitching staffs in the league.
2021 first round pick Cade Cavalli has been rocketing up the minors with the hopes that he and Gray will develop into a strong one-two punch at the front of the Washington Nationals rotation. That hope has dwindled somewhat following the 2022 season as Josiah Gray struggled majorly with a 5.02 ERA and giving up a league leading thirty-eight homers while Cade Cavalli underwent several minor injury setbacks. Meanwhile, the rest of Nats’ MLB rotation was a complete disaster. It got so bad that they even sent 38-year-old Anibal Sanchez out there to find any source of consistent pitching.
Luckily for the Nats, because of another massive trade at last year’s deadline that resulted in the departure of Juan Soto and Josh Bell, the Nationals may have found their future ace in the left-handed MLB-ready Mackenzie Gore. Washington may also have acquired a potential superstar in righty Jarlin Susana who is a little more raw but has a very high ceiling.
At 23 years old, Mackenzie Gore has already proven he is capable of pitching at a high level when healthy. He was the best pitcher in the minor leagues during the 2019 season posting a 1.69 ERA across 101 innings pitched. Obviously a lot has happened since 2019 as we all know, but Gore also succeeded very early in the 2022 season before suffering an injury and later being traded to DC at the deadline for Juan Soto.
With the potential young three-headed monster in Gray, Cavalli and Gore, the Nationals could be in great shape if these young studs all develop and become what we know they are capable of. As for the back end of the rotation, things get interesting. With former Met Trevor Williams signing a two-year deal and a familiar face in Patrick Corbin, we already have a good idea of who will likely fill out the rotation. But with Corbin’s pitching being virtually unrecognizable (not in a good way) since his 2019 campaign and becoming one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball, it’s possible that his spot in the rotation is up for the taking, despite his high salary. That will be especially true if he has another few rocky started to begin the 2023 season.
Injuries have also become a major issue amongst the Nationals’ rotation with Stephen Strasburg being the most prevalent example. He hasn’t been healthy since signing a monster contract following that incredible run in 2019 that delivered this franchise its first World Series championship, making just 8 starts over three seasons and pitching just 31.1 total innings in that time frame. Injuries are going to happen and because of that, it’s more than likely that we will see some unfamiliar faces from the Nationals system pitching in the rotation.
Cole Henry, Jackson Rutledge, Thad Ward and Mitchell Parker are just several of the pitchers I could see making their way up to the big leagues and starting for this Nationals team (Thad Ward, as a Rule 5 pick, must at least be part of the MLB team all season long or be returned to the Red Sox) in 2023. Cole Henry has the most upside of the group, posting a career 2.06 ERA in 78 innings pitched and has raced through the minors since being drafted. Henry has been unlucky with consistent injury concerns and that injury history may be what stops him from ultimately being a formidable piece in this Nationals rotation. Henry recently underwent thoracic outlet syndrome similar to what Stephen Strasburg has been dealing with which is very worrisome for a pitcher at such a young age.
Behind Henry with the second most upside is former first round pick Jackson Rutledge. Rutledge has had many ups and downs throughout his minor league career but had a bounce back year in 2022 along with a mostly healthy season, posting a 4.90 ERA in 97 innings. Those numbers don’t jump off the page but he’s shown flashes of the potential that made him a first round pick, which puts hope in the hearts of many Nats fans that he is going in the right direction with his development.
Next, there’s Thad Ward who was recently selected first overall in the Rule 5 draft after previously being with the Boston Red Sox organization. Ward has been consistently successful with the Red Sox minor league affiliates and posting a 2.53 ERA across 216 innings. At 26 years old, Ward is also the oldest of these four young pitching prospects. There’s little doubt that if a pitching spot becomes vacant in the rotation, then Thad Ward will be among the first men up not only due to his age, experience, and overall solid performance in the minor leagues, but because he’ll already be part of the Nationals MLB team per Rule 5 draft rules.
And finally there’s 23-year-old lefty Mitchell Parker. Parker put up the best numbers of his career this past year by posting a 2.88 ERA with117 strikeouts across 100 innings at A+ Wilmington. He still has some developing to do but don’t be surprised if you see Parker up with the Major League team as a possible 5th starting option or as a bullpen arm.
There’s no dispute that the Nationals had the worst pitching rotation in MLB last year. There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel with former and future top prospects Cade Cavalli, Mackenzie Gore, Josiah Gray and potentially others potentially resurrecting this Nationals rotation in the coming years. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before the winning culture we all came to love during the 2010s returns as well.