We’re not quite there yet, but spring training is drawing near. Pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach in a mere 19 days, and at long last the 2024 Nationals will begin to take shape.
There will be more optimism surrounding this year’s team than there was a year ago, with the organization hoping to take another step forward after improving from 55 to 71 wins. But how much better should we believe the Nats actually are?
Nobody’s going to try to claim this roster stacks up with the best rosters in the National League. The key question is: How does it stack up to last season’s roster?
Over the next few days, we’ll attempt to answer that question, position by position. We’ll start today with the pitching staff. So, do the 2024 Nationals look better, worse or the same?
NO. 1 STARTER: Slightly better
Though Patrick Corbin started Opening Day yet again, by season’s end it was clear Josiah Gray was the team’s best starter. Not that Gray resembled a true ace, far from it. He finished 8-13 with 3.91 ERA and 1.459 WHIP. But he cut down dramatically on his home run rate from the previous year and increased his strikeout rate. He also showed an ability to finish strong after a rough stretch during the second half. What can we expect from the 26-year-old this season? More progress should be expected. Gray is learning who he is and who he isn’t as a big-league pitcher. He set out to reduce his homer rate last winter and was successful. If he can be successful reducing his walk rate in 2024, he’ll wind up having a better season.
NO. 2 STARTER: Better
We’re going to call MacKenzie Gore the No. 2 starter for these purposes, given his pedigree and high ceiling. We saw the makings of a frontline starter last season, and not only a handful of times. In his 17 wins and no-decisions, he posted a 2.58 ERA and 1.282 WHIP. But in his 10 losses, those numbers skyrocketed to 7.71 and 1.612. So, consistency is the key to the young lefty’s development now. We already know how good he can be at his best (five starts of zero or one run allowed while striking out at least seven). Now he needs to limit the damage when he’s not at his best. If he can do that, he’ll finish with much better numbers than his 7-10 record, 4.42 ERA and 1.401 WHIP.
NO. 3 STARTER: Same
Believe it or not, Corbin actually did improve last season. He lowered his ERA by more than a run (6.31 to 5.20), his WHIP by more than two-tenths of a point (1.697 to 1.483) and his average start length from 4.9 innings to 5.6 innings. That didn’t make him a good big-league starter, but it made him a better starter than he was in 2022. Is further improvement possible in 2024? Sure. But at this point, it seems foolish to ask for anything more. Corbin’s in the last year of his contract at last. He’ll need to at least consistently give the Nats a chance to win when he takes the mound to avoid a possible move to the bullpen or early release. That kind of change wasn’t going to happen in the past. It could finally be on the table this year.
NO. 4 STARTER: Slightly better
Combine Jake Irvin and Joan Adon’s 2023 totals and you get 34 starts (a full season’s worth for one starter). You also get a 5-11 record, 5.16 ERA and 1.483 WHIP across 177 2/3 innings. Irvin is going to be back in the 2024 rotation, at least to begin the season. You would hope with experience comes improvement. If it doesn’t, the Nationals do have some backup options more intriguing than Adon this year: Jackson Rutledge and DJ Herz. However the workload shakes out over the course of the season, you’d like to believe the end result will be better than 5-11 with a 5.16 ERA.
NO. 5 STARTER: Better
The Nationals signed Trevor Williams to a two-year, $13 million last winter hoping to stabilize the back of their rotation. Williams held up his end of the bargain for a few months, but he got progressively worse over the course of the season and finished 6-10 with a 5.55 ERA and 1.600 WHIP while surrendering a whopping 34 homers in only 144 1/3 innings. As things currently stand, the right-hander is in line to open the season in the rotation again. This time, though, there’s another younger, more promising arm who should be ready to take over in June: Cade Cavalli. The once top pitching prospect of the organization is nearly back from Tommy John surgery, and his first sustained taste of the majors is going to be a major storyline of the 2024 season. Cavalli may not be a frontline starter yet, but if he flashes some of that potential and stays healthy to make 15-20 starts, he will prove better than last year’s No. 5 starter.
Kyle Finnegan was one of the most dominant relievers in the majors for the bulk of the season until he wore down late and finished with a disappointing 3.76 ERA and 1.298 WHIP. Hunter Harvey was the Nats’ most consistently dominant reliever when he was healthy, finishing with a 2.82 ERA and 0.940 WHIP. Combined, those two notched 38 saves while striking out more than a batter per inning pitched. It will again be interesting to see how Davey Martinez manages the ninth inning, whether he just gives the job to Finnegan, splits the workload up or eventually moves Harvey into the role fulltime. Whatever path they take, though, the Nationals should again be in good shape at the closer’s position.
SETUP MEN: Slightly better
Carl Edwards Jr. pitched in front of Harvey and Finnegan during the first half of the season before getting hurt. He’s now gone. Jordan Weems ascended to that role in the second half and performed well. But the Nats went out and tried to shore things up even more with the signing of veteran Dylan Floro, who owns a 3.42 ERA and 1.317 WHIP across eight big-league seasons. And Tanner Rainey is now back fulltime after returning from Tommy John surgery during last season’s final weekend. He’ll probably be watched closely to protect his arm, but his presence in addition to Floro should help take pressure off Harvey and Finnegan, perhaps keeping them fresher come September.
OTHER RIGHT-HANDERS: Same
The other right-handers the Nationals used last season included Weems, Andres Machado, Mason Thompson, Cory Abbott and Thaddeus Ward. Weems, Thompson and Ward are all back, though Thompson and Ward will need to prove something to make the Opening Day roster. Somebody will need to take over the long man role; perhaps that someone has yet to be signed (likely to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training).
OTHER LEFT-HANDERS: Better
The Nationals spent much of 2023 without any lefties in their bullpen. They finished with three of them, each showing some degree of success. Robert Garcia was most impressive of the bunch, a workhorse who earned Martinez’s trust to pitch in some high-leverage situations by September. Jose A. Ferrer may have the highest ceiling of the group but remains young and raw. Joe La Sorsa was dropped from the 40-man roster this winter but remains in the organization.