After rocky 2021, Rutledge needs smooth 2022 on the mound

We spend the majority of our time here talking about major leaguers, but with the lockout now preventing teams from making any transactions involving players on 40-man rosters, let's take an opportunity to delve deeper into some of the Nationals' top minor leaguers. We continue this weekly series with the organization's No. 3 prospect ...

RHP JACKSON RUTLEDGE

Height/Weight: 6-foot-8, 245 lbs.

Age on opening day 2022: 23

How acquired: First-round pick, 2019 draft, San Jacinto Junior College

2021 stats (High Single-A Wilmington): 0-3, 12.66 ERA, 4 GS, 10 2/3 IP, 17 H, 16 R, 15 ER, 0 HR, 9 BB, 10 SO, 1 HBP, 2.438 WHIP, .370 Opp. AVG

2021 stats (Rookie Florida Complex League): 0-1, 7.36 ERA, 2 GS, 3 2/3 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 HR, 2 BB, 5 SO, 0 HBP, 1.364 WHIP, .214 Opp. AVG

2021 stats (Low Single-A Fredericksburg): 1-2, 5.32 ERA, 7 GS, 22 IP, 20 H, 16 R, 13 ER, 1 HR, 9 BB, 26 SO, 2 HBP, 1.318 WHIP, .235 Opp. AVG

baseballs-in-bin-sidebar.jpg2021 analysis: The Nationals were eager to see Jackson Rutledge face the competition at high Single-A after spending all of 2020 at the alternate training site facing teammates, but the early returns were less than promising. Worse, the tall right-hander came down with a sore shoulder after four starts at Wilmington and spent seven weeks on the injured list.

After a pair of rehab starts at the club's spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Rutledge was assigned to low Single-A Fredericksburg. The results were better, but there still were a couple of notable blowups in which he allowed six or more runs, leaving his season totals in 13 starts across three levels rather unimpressive: 1-6, 7.68 ERA, 1.651 WHIP.

Rutledge, who also missed a little bit of time dealing with a blister, got a chance to get some more much-needed work in the Arizona Fall League. Facing competition significantly more advanced than him, he again struggled, posting a 6.98 ERA and 1.966 WHIP in 19 1/3 innings, with a gaudy 17-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

It all made for a disappointing season in total, but the fact Rutledge ended it healthy was perhaps the most important development heading into the winter.

2022 outlook: Rutledge will be looking for a fresh start next season, and the Nationals can only hope he emerges from spring training healthy and ready to get off on the right foot. He would appear likeliest to open at Wilmington again, with a chance to enjoy some success and perhaps earn a promotion to Double-A Harrisburg later in the summer if all goes well.

Despite the unimpressive numbers to date, Rutledge still does project to be a quality pitching prospect for the Nationals, currently ranked behind only 2020 first-round pick Cade Cavalli in the organization. He's got the frame of a big league pitcher, not to mention the arsenal, headlined by a mid-90s fastball and strong slider. He needs to develop his changeup and curveball at some point, but those figure to be among his final steps before reaching D.C. in a couple more years.

Above all else, Rutledge just needs to pitch a full minor league season. To date, he has thrown a grand total of 93 innings as a professional, including the time he spent in Arizona this fall. The lost 2020 season certainly stunted his development, as it did for so many prospects who never got a chance to face real competition during the pandemic-shortened season.

That makes 2022 a critical campaign for Rutledge. The Nationals are banking on him being part of their rotation the next time they're contending for a championship, alongside Cavalli, Josiah Gray and others. There's still plenty of time for him to get there, but the path needs to start soon, and it needs to avoid any more major bumps in the road.

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