As the start of spring training gets closer and closer – pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach in a mere nine days! – we’re looking at how unpredictable the upcoming season could be for each member of the Nationals’ potential roster on an individual basis.
With few established players that look like sure things entering the year, there’s a wide variance of possibilities in each case. We looked at the nine likely members of the lineup Friday. Today, we look at the pitchers most likely to be in the mix for spots on the Opening Day roster.
Here’s the best-case and worst-case scenario for the 2023 season for each of them …
Best case: His elbow back to full health, the lefty picks up where he left off during the first half of last season in San Diego. Over 30 starts, he maintains an ERA around 3.00, striking out more than one batter per inning and establishing himself as the young leader of this rotation moving forward.
Worst case: A return of elbow discomfort would really be worst-case, but even if his arm feels fine there’s still a fear of diminished velocity and stamina. A fastball in the low 90s, combined with less-than-ideal command, could leave the Nationals questioning if he really will live up to his billing long-term.
Best case: Fresh off a restful winter, with his major league debut already behind him, Cavalli proves he’s ready to stick in the big league for the long haul. The Nats are still careful with his workload, limiting him to 26 starts or 140 innings, but he makes the most of those outings with a sub-3.50 ERA and more than 150 strikeouts.
Worst case: Even with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, if he doesn’t maintain precise command, big league hitters will have success off that pitch. His secondary stuff helps bail him out sometimes, but a high WHIP leaves him looking like something less than a frontline starter.
Best case: With better mechanics and a straighter line to the plate, Gray is better able to hit the corners with his fastball and avoid pitches that tail back over the plate. He cuts down on both his walks and his strikeouts, is free to make 32 starts and reach 180 innings pitched, with a sub-4.00 ERA to firmly set his standard for the future.
Worst case: He’s just not able to fix those shaky mechanics, making his fastball eminently hittable again. He tries to overcome that by relying mostly on his breaking balls and some two-seamers, but he continues to give up homers in bunches and can’t get his ERA under 5.00.
Best case: With better infield defense behind him, the lefty sees his BABIP plummet back to a normal .300 instead of the .365 mark he experienced last season. He doesn’t come close to rediscovering his peak form from 2019, but he does prove to be a viable major league starter again with an ERA in the 4.00s.
Worst case: Nothing changes from last season. Corbin continues to get hammered on a regular basis, no matter who’s playing behind him. He continues to have no answers for his struggles. Eventually, the Nats decide they have a better option and decide to eat the final 1 1/2 years of his contract.
Best case: The right-hander takes the success he had as a long reliever for the Mets and makes it work as a starter for the Nats, proving he can get through a lineup at least twice, maybe three times on occasion. He gives them 150 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA and proves to be a savvy (and affordable) signing by Mike Rizzo.
Worst case: He can’t sustain success more than two or three innings at a time and winds up getting bumped back to the bullpen. He’s still a valuable long man, but not worth the $6 million the team is paying him this season.
Best case: Knowing he’s the closer entering the season, he seizes the job for good and gives the team no reason to consider make a change. He still has a few cringeworthy blowups, but he offsets those with 30 saves and an ERA in the 2.00s.
Worst case: The pressure of the ninth inning gets to him too often. He blows 10 saves with a bad combination of walks and homers, losing the closer’s job. He remains a setup man but isn’t able to take that next critical step toward a big-time future.
CARL EDWARDS JR.
Best case: Proves last year was no fluke and this is the pitcher he can be for years to come. It’s rarely flashy, but he gets the job done night in and night out and becomes an intriguing trade chip come the end of July.
Worst case: That 2022 comeback really was a flash in the pan, and he’s right back where he started. The Nationals have enough other bullpen options to feel comfortable designating him for assignment in August, and he’s left to try to resurrect his career elsewhere.
Best case: With his litany of injury woes now a thing of the past thanks to an overhaul of his mechanics before he signed with the Nats, the former first round pick realizes his full potential as a dominant big league reliever. He gets a chance to record his first career save and winds up as Davey Martinez’s go-to guy for the ninth inning during the season’s second half.
Worst case: Though effective when healthy, he simply can’t keep himself on the mound with any regularity. The Nationals spend more time rehabbing the right-hander than actually handing him the ball for big league games, and by season’s end decide it’s not worth the risk anymore.
Best case: Knowing he’s assured of a roster spot and doesn’t have to prove anything, the veteran picks up right where he left off last season. He takes the ball whenever the Nationals need him, for however long they need him, in whatever role they need. Once again is the unsung hero of the staff.
Worst case: Gets a little too comfortable with the job status that comes with a guaranteed contract and loses his edge. He still takes the ball whenever needed, but the results just aren’t there anymore. He is released in July.
Best case: Free to pitch in the role that seems to suit him best – long reliever – he is the Nats’ “Secret Weapon” again. He may not pitch in a lot of high-leverage situations, but who’s going to complain about a sub-3.00 ERA over 75 innings that would need to be eaten by somebody else if not for him?
Worst case: Injuries and struggles to the rotation force Davey Martinez to turn to Espino as a starter again. The results are all too familiar: He can’t sustain success beyond the third inning and pays the price for it with an elevated ERA and an overworked bullpen due to his quick hooks.
Best case: Shows enough in spring training to merit inclusion on the roster. The Nationals pick and choose their spots for him, mostly long relief in lopsided games. But as he shows he can handle big league hitters, he starts getting opportunities to pitch in more significant situations. He even gets to make a start or two in September, proving he was the right choice with the No. 1 pick in the Rule 5 draft.
Worst case: Doesn’t look like big league material in spring training, but the Nationals put him on the roster anyway in an attempt to justify his selection. After a couple of months of bad showings in low-leverage spots, the team offers him back to the Red Sox, ending that experiment.
Best case: With a structurally sound elbow thanks to last summer’s internal brace procedure, the fan favorite enjoys a full-fledged comeback. He makes 60 appearances out of the bullpen, enjoying success as the team’s top left-handed option late in games, then re-signs a new deal with the Nationals for 2024.
Worst case: His elbow gives out in spring training. Or, even though his arm feels fine, he can’t generate the velocity and spin rate he used to possess. Doolittle and the Nats decide it’s just not going to happen, and he rides off into the sunset, bound to still make a difference in this world off the baseball field.
Best case: It becomes clear in spring training he’s finally got everything figured out and can pitch effectively with no discomfort or fear of long-term damage. He still opens the season on the injured list, but after a long rehab stint in the minors he makes a triumphant return to the mound at Nationals Park and recaptures the kind of pitching magic that made him a star in the first place.
Worst case: Once he begins to try to ramp up his throwing this spring, the pain in his shoulder/neck/side returns. Strasburg and the Nationals have to decide if it’s worth attempting yet another long rehab program, or if it’s sadly time to discuss some kind of financial arrangement that addresses the remaining three years of that massive contract.