The Nationals were bad last year, but you already know that. They want to be better this year, and you probably do, too.
But will they be better? That’s what we’re attempting to predict the last two days.
Though there’s still a month to go until spring training, and more additions or subtractions are possible, the Nats have already assembled what looks like it could be their Opening Day roster. So it’s not too early for this exercise.
We looked at position players yesterday, running through each of the positions (included designated hitter). Today, we look at the pitching staff, running through each slot in the rotation, plus multiple bullpen roles. Will the 2023 Nationals be better, worse or the same as the 2022 Nationals? Here we go …
NO. 1 STARTER: Slightly better, you have to hope
Who was the Nationals’ No. 1 starter last year? Patrick Corbin started Opening Day and threw the most innings. Josiah Gray led the staff in wins and strikeouts. Aníbal Sánchez (?!) led the starters in WAR. Point is, they don’t have a No. 1 guy, not yet. So for these purposes, we’ll go with Corbin and just look at how he may fare in 2023 vs. 2022. Enough has been said and written about the left-hander, who has steadily devolved over the last three seasons into the worst starter in baseball. He’s not going anywhere, not with two years still left on his contract. So, can he be better than 6-19 with a 6.31 ERA and 1.697 WHIP? You sure hope so, don’t you? Nobody’s going to suggest he can return to his elite 2019 form anymore. But it is fair to think he could become somewhat more respectable, and the main reason for that would be better defense behind him. His 4.83 FIP last season suggests he wasn’t solely to blame for his wretched numbers. Let’s see if an entire year of CJ Abrams at shortstop might actually bring Corbin’s ERA down under 5.00, which would have to be considered a major win.
NO. 2 STARTER: Slightly better
We’ll treat Gray as the No. 2 starter for these purposes, even if he doesn’t necessarily project to be their No. 2 guy the whole season. He is the only other fully returning member of the 2022 rotation, and there will be expectations on the 25-year-old to improve. He’s got to cut down on his ridiculous home run total (38 surrendered in 148 2/3 innings). He’s got to cut down on his walk rate (4.0 per nine innings). And he’s got to learn how to be more effective even when he doesn’t have his best stuff on a given night. How does he do that? With better fastball mechanics and command. We’ll see if the offseason work he’s supposedly put into that pays off.
NO. 3 STARTER: Better
Erick Fedde made the third-most starts on the staff last season, so we’ll call him the former No. 3 starter. He’s now headed to South Korea to pitch after he was non-tendered by the Nats. Who’s his replacement? Let’s say it’s MacKenzie Gore. If everything works out as hoped, Gore might well be the team’s No. 1 starter before this season is over. But the lefty still has to prove it. He was outstanding for the Padres in the first half of 2022 before dealing with elbow issues. He was about ready to return from the injured list for the Nationals when the season ended. So that makes him a real question mark entering spring training. But is it too much to ask for Gore to top Fedde’s numbers from 2022: 6-13, 5.81 ERA, 27 starts, 127 innings, 1.630 WHIP? Boy, you’d sure like to believe he’ll be better than that, right?
NO 4. STARTER: Better
Paolo Espino made 19 starts last season (along with 23 relief appearances). In those starts, the journeyman right-hander went 0-9 with a 5.81 ERA and 1.458 WHIP. That’s why he’s probably ticketed for a relief role (where he posted a 2.12 ERA and 1.112 WHIP) this season. Cade Cavalli ostensibly takes over this slot in the Opening Day rotation. Like Gore, the organization really hopes the 2020 first-rounder pitches far better than a No. 4 starter. But like Gore, he still needs to prove it. If Cavalli can make 25 starts with an ERA under 4.50 and a lot of strikeouts, that’s a solid first big league season. If he can do better than that, the Nats will really have a building block on their hands.
NO. 5 STARTER: Moderately better
Remember Joan Adon and the two Sanchezes (Aníbal and Aaron)? They essentially were the Nationals’ No. 5 starters last year. Combine their stats and you get a wretched 8-21 record, 6.15 ERA and 1.560 WHIP over 165 1/3 innings. Woof. The Nats decided to go out and sign Trevor Williams to a two-year, $13 million deal in an attempt to provide more stability at the back end of their rotation. There’s no guarantee Williams (who was better as a reliever than as a starter for the Mets) will be markedly better, but it’s hard to imagine him being that bad, or even worse. The concern is who else the Nationals have if they have to compensate for injuries or poor performance. At the moment, their options would be Adon, Espino and Cory Abbott. And yes, in theory there’s also Stephen Strasburg, but let’s not count on anything there. If the Nats have to delve too deep into their rotation depth, they’re in trouble again.
Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan split the closer’s job last season, with Finnegan eventually taking over full-time after Rainey needed Tommy John surgery. The job is Finnegan’s now, at least until Rainey possibly returns in late summer. It’s also possible Hunter Harvey could force his way into the ninth inning if he’s healthier and more effective than Finnegan. Regardless, whoever closes games just needs to at least duplicate the team’s 2022 numbers in save situations: 4-7, 3.44 ERA, 1.318 WHIP, 28 saves. Ideally, they’d be better than that. But they could survive with comparable numbers in another rebuilding year.
SETUP MEN: Hopefully same, maybe worse
This was the real strength of the Nats bullpen last season. Harvey and Carl Edwards Jr. typically pitched the seventh and eighth innings, and both were quite good. But can they be counted upon to do it again? Harvey seems like a better bet, though that requires the oft-injured right-hander to stay healthy for a full season for the first time in his career. He truly believes he made some mechanical changes that put him in a better throwing position to avoid injuries, but time will tell. Edwards is probably more of a candidate for regression, which sadly is the way things work with most relievers. It would be great if he could repeat his 2022 numbers (2.76 ERA, 1.226 WHIP in 62 innings) but it wouldn’t shock anyone if he didn’t.
OTHER RIGHT-HANDERS: Hopefully same, maybe worse
This falls into a similar category as the setup men. Erasmo Ramirez, Steve Cishek, Andres Machado, Mason Thompson, Victor Arano, Jordan Weems, Espino and Abbott all held bullpen roles during the 2022 season. They weren’t all great, but as a group they were solid. Cishek retired, and Machado just cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Rochester after getting designated for assignment last week. Otherwise, everyone else returns, with the lone addition coming in the form of Rule 5 draftee Thad Ward (if he sticks). The Nationals would love for two or three of those guys to pitch well over the course of the whole season.
OTHER LEFT-HANDERS: Better
The Nationals never had any lefty stick in their bullpen for long stretches last season. Sean Doolittle got hurt. Sam Clay, Francisco Pérez and Jake McGee weren’t effective and were dumped. So they’ll give it another shot this year, with Doolittle hoping to come back from a procedure on his elbow that was less invasive than Tommy John surgery, plus two prospects who were added to the 40-man roster over the winter: Matt Cronin and Jose Ferrer. There’s probably only room for one of them on the staff on Opening Day, and Doolittle would be the safer bet if he’s healthy. The other two should get a look at some point, though. If any of them is halfway effective for more than a quick stretch, it’ll be an improvement for the team from what they had in 2022.