Nats in market for starter, but focus remains on young arms

NASHVILLE – The Nationals don’t have to add a starting pitcher this winter. They could easily enter the 2024 season with Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore, Jake Irvin, Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams in their rotation, with Cade Cavalli set to return from Tommy John surgery in June and several other prospects at Triple-A Rochester ready to be called upon if needed.

Mike Rizzo isn’t hiding the fact, though, that he’d like to acquire another starter. It may not be priority No. 1 on his offseason shopping list, but it’s definitely on the list.

“Everyone needs starting pitching in the whole sport,” the general manager said Monday. “We’re no different. You can never have enough of it, and we’re in search of it.”

Free agent starters, of course, don’t come cheap. The best ones cost more than $100 million. The average ones can cost in excess of $50 million. Even the worst of them can still come with a price tag of $10 million per year, based on what struggling veterans Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson recently received from the Cardinals.

So if the Nationals do delve into the market this winter, they likely won’t be acquiring anything more than a back-of-the-rotation arm, someone who will be asked to eat innings and take some pressure and workload off the organization’s younger pitchers.

Not that they want to completely take pressure off those young guys.

The Nats got 416 1/3 innings from three starters 26 and younger this season: Gray, Gore and Irvin. Each topped at least 120 innings. Only one other major league club got that much work from three starters as young: the Mariners.

And the Nationals are counting on even more from that group in 2024.

“Riz, he’s a competitor, and he wants to win games,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We could add another starting pitcher in that mix. … But I want to see our young pitchers pitch. Some of these guys got a year under their belts, some of them have three-quarters of a year under their belt. I want to see what they can do coming out of spring training.”

Rizzo agrees.

“We’re always careful,” he said. “But we’re going to take the reins off them a little bit this year.”

The Nationals utilized a six-man rotation in September, helping minimize the workload for Gray, Gore and Irvin in particular while giving Joan Adon and Jackson Rutledge an opportunity to start in the major leagues. That is something they’ll consider next season, depending on the schedule at various points in the year.

But ultimately, Martinez and Rizzo see real value in starters who are able to push themselves, regularly completing six innings and then coming back to do it again five days later.

“Hey, look, I could go back to 2019 and the pitching staff that we had,” Martinez said. “Those guys ate innings, and we won because of our pitching staff. They kept us in ballgames. I always say the same thing to our young guys: ‘If you can give us 18-to-20 outs as a starter, we’re going to do big things.’ I still believe that. I know the game’s changed a little bit, but our starting pitchers need to give us some innings.”

If the 2024 rotation still includes Corbin and Williams, the Nationals will have to hope not just for innings but more quality innings from both veterans who finished the season with ERAs over 5.20 and WHIPs over 1.480.

Rizzo and Martinez continue to praise both Corbin and Williams for taking the ball as much as they did and never complaining, no matter how ugly the results were at times. But at some point, the standard is going to be raised again, and more will be expected from the team’s No. 4 and No. 5 starters, even if that means moving on from those two veterans.

Corbin finally enters the final year of his $140 million contract, so the leash may finally be shorter on him if he struggles. Williams enters the second year of his $13 million deal and could be a candidate for the bullpen if he can’t be more consistently effective as a starter.

“Right now, Trevor … he’s our fourth, fifth starter,” Martinez said. “We’ll see what transpires over the winter.”

“We’re going to go with the best five starting pitchers. If he’s one of those five, he’ll start,” Rizzo said of Williams. “And if he’s not, then he’s shown the capabilities of being a swingman, a long reliever, a multi-inning, multi-days-in-a-row reliever and just a workhorse. I don’t want to shortchange what he did for this team last year, taking the ball for so many innings and so many starts when he hadn’t done it in years. That was, in my mind, very team-oriented and very unselfish of him. I thought he did a great job for us in that regard.”

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