A preliminary look at the free agent pitching market

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Though there’s been a bit of movement on the free agent market elsewhere, we’re still in the preliminary stages of the offseason around here. The Nationals have yet to add anybody to the fold, focusing instead on which players to add to their 40-man roster and which players to remove from the equation.

But now that they’ve completed those tasks, it’s fair to wonder when they’ll start moving onto free agency and addressing a handful of significant needs. (It’s also fair to wonder if they’ll be able to address any of those needs while the club is still for sale, but we’ve already raised that question and there’s not much more to say about that for now.)

So let’s proceed as if Mark Lerner has given Mike Rizzo the green light to spend some money this winter. Not gobs of money, but enough money to fill roster holes with actual free agents, not just bargain-basement pickups.

The Nationals have multiple needs. We’ll focus today on a particularly important one: starting pitching.

The 2022 rotation ranked dead-last in the majors in ERA (5.97) by a longshot, last in WHIP (1.563), last in walks per nine innings (3.76), last in strikeouts per walk (1.97), last in homers allowed (161). It’s hard to believe they finished with the majors’ worst record as well, isn’t it?

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Gore primed to lead Nats rotation, if he's healthy again

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PLAYER REVIEW: MACKENZIE GORE

Age on opening day 2023: 24

How acquired: Traded from Padres with CJ Abrams, Luke Voit, Robert Hassell III, James Wood and Jarlin Susana for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, August 2022

MLB service time: 1 year

2022 salary: $700,000

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After miserable season, Nats have much work to do

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NEW YORK – There is no way to sugarcoat a 55-107 season, no silver lining to setting a club record for losses, no justifying the worst record in baseball.

This was, undoubtedly, the worst of the Nationals’ 18 seasons since they arrived in the District in 2005. They lost more games than the awful 2008-09 teams. The rotation’s 5.97 ERA was far worse than the dreadful 2006 (5.37) or 2020 (5.38) starters’ numbers. Their 17-59 record and .224 winning percentage against the National League East was not only the worst in club history, it was the worst in major league history since divisional play began in 1969.

Oh, and they also traded away a 22-year-old generational star, not because they didn’t want him, but because they believed it was the only way they could restock a farm system that was barren because of their own inability to draft and develop future big leaguers over much of the last decade.

How could the Nationals try to claim the 2022 season was successful? They can’t.

What they can do, and what they are trying to do, is believe this rock-bottom season was a necessary step toward something better in the future. That by losing to this extent now and refocusing efforts on rebuilding that barren farm system, they will be in a better position to win again sooner than they would be if they didn’t take this drastic step backward.

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Gore won't pitch before season's end, Cavalli throwing pain-free

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The Nationals have decided not to give MacKenzie Gore a start before season’s end, not wanting to push the left-hander to come off the injured list given the shaky weekend forecast and his stamina issues during a lengthy minor league rehab stint.

Gore, who was acquired from the Padres while on the 15-day IL with left elbow inflammation, had been building himself back up with the intention of making one or two big league starts before the season ends. And after throwing 72 pitches over 3 2/3 innings Monday in his fourth rehab outing for Triple-A Rochester, he expressed optimism he’d make a start against the Phillies this weekend, even if he was limited to three or four innings.

But after conversations with manager Davey Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo, Gore was told his season would end now, with an offseason plan implemented to help him build up more strength and stamina heading into spring training.

“For me, that’s good enough,” Martinez said. “When we started this and started your rehab stuff, that’s the point we wanted to get to. For me, if it was something different – if we didn’t have enough pitchers, or whatever, which we do – it would be a different conversation. But I don’t want to push it. I think we’re in a good spot right now.”

Gore had totaled 70 big league innings for the Padres before going on the IL in late July, going 4-4 with a 4.50 ERA, 1.472 WHIP and 72 strikeouts, those numbers turning worse as he was beginning to deal with his elbow issue. He was highly motivated to come back and pitch for the Nationals, but the organization doesn’t feel like he needs to prove anything to them.

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Despite stamina issues, Gore wants to make start for Nats

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MacKenzie Gore was back in the clubhouse at Nationals Park this afternoon, back from his fourth rehab start with Triple-A Rochester, fully acknowledging the outcome from his most recent start (six runs, six hits, three homers allowed in 3 2/3 innings) didn’t look great on paper.

“It’s tough. You look at the line last night, it looks like a bad outing,” the left-hander said. “But it’s really just the fourth that was bad.”

Indeed, a closer examination of Gore’s start against Worcester confirms all his troubles came in his final inning of work. When he walked off the mound at the end of the third, he had allowed only one of the 10 batters he had faced to that point to reach (a leadoff homer in the second). He had three strikeouts. He threw 27 of 39 pitches for strikes.

The fourth inning, though, was a mess for Gore. He issued his lone walk of the night. He gave up five extra-base hits, two of them homers. He threw only 18 of 33 pitches for strikes. And he was pulled before completing the inning, his total pitch count up to 72.

“I feel fine. I just haven’t built up as quickly as I thought I would,” he said. “The first three innings were good. The fourth, I just kind of ran out of gas.”

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Nats will give Gray at least one more start

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MIAMI – Despite plenty of consideration over the last few weeks, the Nationals will not shut Josiah Gray down yet, giving the right-hander at least one more start this season.

Gray will pitch Wednesday against the Braves in D.C., the club decided today.

That decision was made both with consideration about the state of Gray’s arm at the end of his first full big league season, as well as the uncertain status of Patrick Corbin, who had to depart his last start in Atlanta after tweaking his back and will miss at least one turn through the rotation as a result.

“One, he’s still strong. He’s still throwing the ball well,” manager Davey Martinez said of Gray. “And two, we don’t know what’s going to happen with Corbin yet. But I like the way he threw the ball (Friday). The big thing is, he threw a lot more changeups; we want to continue to see him develop his changeup. So we’re going to give him another start and go from there.”

Gray had some encouraging moments during Friday night’s loss to the Marlins, in which he went six innings and began to rely more on his emerging sinker and changeup in addition to his slider and curveball, while throwing fewer four-seam fastballs. A potential quality start, though, fell apart during a three-run bottom of the sixth that left the 24-year-old upset at himself afterward.

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Rotation puzzle for final 12 games looks complicated

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MIAMI – There are 12 games remaining on the Nationals’ schedule, 12 games that need to be played in 12 days (with one off-day still on tap but a day-night doubleheader also on the slate). Which means Davey Martinez and Jim Hickey have 12 more starting pitchers to name, which is becoming a more daunting challenge than either man anticipated.

In a perfect world, the Nationals would’ve had more starters than dates that needed to be filled. They would have Cade Cavalli and MacKenzie Gore ready to finish strong and perhaps allow Josiah Gray to shut down early. They would have the ability to prevent Patrick Corbin from making a run at 20 losses. They would have kids they could summon from their farm system to take over at the end for veterans who just don’t need the work at this point.

But this is not a perfect world, and so Martinez and Hickey may be forced to do some things with their rotation they’d rather not.

Consider Gray, for example. The Nationals have been talking for months about their preference not to let the 24-year-old’s workload get too heavy in his first full professional season. The intention was always going to be to shut him down at some point in late September.

But following Friday night’s 5-2 loss to the Marlins – in which Gray looked really sharp for five innings before faltering in the sixth – Martinez admitted this decision has gotten tougher in the wake of Corbin’s recent back injury. (The left-hander, who was removed from his last start after only 12 pitches, played catch Friday and reported improvement, but there’s still no guarantee he returns to pitch before season’s end.)

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Gore to make another rehab start, Corbin resumes throwing

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MIAMI – MacKenzie Gore will make another rehab start for Triple-A Rochester, leaving the left-hander with enough time to make only major league start for the Nationals before season’s end.

Gore, who threw 67 pitches over four innings of one-run ball Wednesday in his third rehab start, will return to Rochester and attempt to build up to five innings Monday against Worcester.

“We talked to him before he left about trying to throw strike one every (at-bat) and work from there. And as the game went along, they said he started doing a lot more of that,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That’s encouraging. For me, it’s just about honing in on his mechanics, throwing more strikes. And once he does that, I think the five innings and 75 pitches will come.”

Already on the 15-day injured list with left elbow inflammation when the Nationals acquired him as part of the haul of prospects the Padres sent them for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, Gore has slowly built his arm back up over the last six weeks.

The plan all along has included the possibility of one or two major league starts before season’s end. At this point, there wouldn’t be enough time for him to make more than one.

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Gore makes rehab start, Hassell heading to Fall League

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As Cade Cavalli deals with another shutdown and Josiah Gray deals with September struggles, the Nationals at least are seeing some positive signs with the third member of the young pitching trio they hope to build their rotation around.

MacKenzie Gore made his second rehab start for Triple-A Rochester on Friday and tossed 2 2/3 scoreless innings on 57 pitches, another step on his path toward making his Nats debut before season’s end.

Gore, on the 15-day injured list with elbow inflammation since late July (before he was part of the Nationals’ blockbuster trade with the Padres for Juan Soto and Josh Bell), built up both his innings and pitch count in his second rehab start for Rochester.

The left-hander did put six Lehigh Valley batters on base in his 2 2/3 innings (four singles, two walks) but didn’t allow any of them to score while striking out two. He threw 32 of his 57 pitches for strikes.

Assuming Gore came out of this outing healthy, the Nats are likely to have him make another rehab start in five or six days, building up to roughly 70 pitches. Depending on how that goes, the club could decide to activate him off the IL with enough time to make two big league starts before the season ends Oct. 5.

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García batting cleanup, Gore heading back to Rochester

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Luis García has excelled at his new position in the field. How will he handle a new position in the Nationals lineup?

García finds himself batting cleanup tonight for the first time in his career, penciled in by manager Davey Martinez as his No. 4 hitter for the Nats’ series opener against the Orioles.

It’s both a reflection of García's performance at the plate and the state of the rest of the lineup, which has seen Nelson Cruz struggle mightily and get bumped out of the cleanup spot, plus Keibert Ruiz land on the injured list likely for the remainder of the season.

“I wanted to try to break up our lineup with some of those righties and get him in there,” Martinez said. “He matches up well with (Orioles starter Dean Kremer) in there today. I thought we’ll give it a shot, see how he reacts to it. When he hits the ball, he hits it hard. I like the way he’s swinging the bat. So we’re going to put him at cleanup and see how he does.”

García has enjoyed a sustained stretch of success at the plate, batting .312 with four doubles, two homers, nine RBIs and an .809 OPS over his last 14 games. That coincides with his return from a minor groin strain and his move from shortstop to second base following CJ Abrams’ arrival from the Padres.

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Gore set for rehab start, Cavalli nearly ready to throw again

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PHILADELPHIA – Some news and notes before the Nationals take on the Phillies in the second game of this weekend’s series at Citizens Bank Park …

* MacKenzie Gore is set to make a rehab start Sunday for Triple-A Rochester at Syracuse, his first game action since his acquisition from the Padres at the trade deadline.

Gore, who has been on the 15-day injured list with left elbow inflammation, is scheduled to throw three innings for the Red Wings, perhaps building up his pitch count to 45.

The Nationals are attempting to build Gore up enough to come off the IL before season’s end. Manager Davey Martinez said they’d ideally like for him to get up to five innings and 75 pitches, so that would suggest three minor league rehab starts and then at most two starts for the Nats in the season’s final days.

“The most exciting thing is that he’s throwing off the mound again. The ball’s coming out, and he looks like he’s good,” Martinez said. “Now it’s just a matter of facing hitters. We saw him do that a little bit, but now he gets to compete. I’m looking forward to watching him do that. My big thing is to make sure that when he leaves here this year, he’s healthy and he can go into the winter. And then we’ll build him up and get him ready for spring training.”

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Ruiz's season likely over, McGee designated for assignment

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PHILADELPHIA – Keibert Ruiz’s season has likely come to an abrupt end after the Nationals placed their young catcher on the injured list with a testicular contusion that forced him to remain in a St. Louis hospital overnight after he was struck by a foul ball during the team’s series finale against the Cardinals.

Ruiz was discharged and was flying to Philadelphia late this afternoon to rejoin the Nationals, who formally placed him on the 10-day IL prior to tonight’s game against the Phillies. Manager Davey Martinez, though, said Ruiz has been instructed not to partake in any strenuous activities for three weeks, which leaves him almost no chance of making it back before the season ends in 26 days.

“We hope that he just continues to get better,” Martinez said. “We’ll see how he’s doing. But with everything going on, the doctors said he’s not able to do anything strenuous for three weeks. So we’re just going to take it day by day and take it from there.”

Martinez generally was encouraged about Ruiz’s progress in the last day and didn’t sound overly concerned about his long-term well-being. Assuming his season is over, the 24-year-old will finish with a .251 batting average, 22 doubles, seven homers, 36 RBIs and a .673 OPS across 433 plate appearances.

Ruiz enters the day having caught 106 games, second only to the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto this season. He has thrown out 18 basestealers while also picking off four runners, giving him 22 total runners thrown out (again, second only to Realmuto among all major league catchers).

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Gore faces live hitters, on track to begin rehab assignment

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ST. LOUIS – It was a far cry from an actual major league game, and it was far from perfect from a performance standpoint, but MacKenzie Gore’s simulated game this afternoon at Busch Stadium represented an important step in a rehab process the left-hander believes will conclude with his Nationals debut before season’s end.

“Big step in the right direction,” he said. “I felt good. It wasn’t perfect, by any means. But I felt good, and definitely moving in the right direction.”

Gore, who was acquired from the Padres in the Juan Soto-Josh Bell trade while on the 15-day injured list with left elbow inflammation, threw 37 pitches over two simulated innings today. He worked with Tres Barrera behind the plate, facing teammates Josh Palacios, Riley Adams and Alex Call.

This was the first time the 23-year-old faced live hitters since July 25, when he departed the Padres’ game in Detroit after only 33 pitches and reported elbow soreness. He landed on the IL shortly after that, and a week later was one of six players dealt to the Nats for Soto and Bell.

Gore has been rehabbing with the big league club since, getting comfortable with the Nationals’ medical and coaching staffs. He threw three times off a bullpen mound leading up to today’s outing. The plan moving forward: He’s scheduled to throw another bullpen session Friday in Washington, and if everything goes well, he’ll be sent out on a minor league rehab assignment.

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Could Cavalli's injury change how Nats handle Gray, Gore?

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Tuesday’s news about Cade Cavalli, who is going on the injured list and could be done for the season with right shoulder inflammation, was incredibly discouraging for the Nationals.

Now here’s an even more discouraging thought: What if Cavalli’s injury prompts the team to shut down MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray before season’s end as well?

That’s certainly on the table, when you consider what Davey Martinez said when asked if the Cavalli situation might make the club more cautious about handling its two other young starters the rest of the way.

“Yeah, we’re going to look at all that stuff,” he said, later adding: “We’re going to spend the next few weeks just watching these guys, watching them progress, and see where we’re at.”

There are concerns about all three of them, for varying reasons.

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Cavalli to start Thursday vs. A's, Gray to return at Mets

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Cade Cavalli will make his next start for the Nationals on Thursday afternoon, giving the organization’s top pitching prospect two home outings to begin his career before he makes his road debut.

Cavalli is slated to start the finale of a three-game series against the Athletics, with Erick Fedde and Aníbal Sánchez pitching Tuesday and Wednesday nights, respectively.

The 24-year-old right-hander made his major league debut Friday against the Reds, struggling with grip issues on a hot and muggy D.C. evening en route to seven runs allowed over 4 1/3 innings and 99 pitches. He’ll now get a chance to face another rebuilding club in the A’s, who currently own the second-worst record in baseball (ahead of only the Nationals).

Cavalli will be pitching on five days’ rest, just as he did most of the time this season at Triple-A Rochester. The Nationals are going to attempt to continue giving him an extra day of rest as much as possible over the season’s final month, taking advantage of scheduled off-days of their schedule for both Cavalli and Josiah Gray.

“Between him and JoJo, we’re definitely going to try to keep those guys limited a little bit in the next month,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But we definitely want to see him pitch up here. So he’ll pitch Thursday, and then we’ll have some days off coming up. We’ll see how we’re going to work those two guys. We might give them a couple extra days in between.”

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Cavalli to make MLB debut Friday night in D.C.

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SEATTLE – Cade Cavalli – and Nationals fans – don’t have to wait any longer. The organization’s top pitching prospect will make his major league debut Friday night.

Manager Davey Martinez made it official today, confirming the 24-year-old right-hander will start Friday’s series opener against the Reds, with a plan to have him continue to pitch every five or six days the rest of the season.

“We’re excited,” Martinez said. “He’s checked a lot of the boxes. With that being said, with all of our young guys, part of the process is patience. We’re going to get him up here and get him going, and see how he does. But he’s done well in Rochester, really well, as the numbers will indicate.”

Cavalli’s season-long numbers at Triple-A (3.71 ERA, 1.175 WHIP, 104 strikeouts in 97 innings) are solid but not spectacular. But over his last 13 starts, he’s been electric (2.10 ERA, 1.019 WHIP, 77 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings), capped off by a 109-pitch outing Saturday against Worcester in which he had seven strikeouts through his first three innings.

In promoting him now, the Nationals have set it up for Cavalli to make his first two starts at home against non-contenders (Friday vs. the Reds, Sept. 1 vs. the Athletics) before the team faces mostly NL East contenders during the season’s final month.

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What will Nats' rotation look like in September?

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Way back in early June, when the Nationals were languishing with the worst rotation in baseball, we wondered if the day might be coming soon when they would have a whole new set of starters pitching for them, guys who not only would be more effective than the current group but also would be younger and part of the organization’s long-term plan.

Here we are entering the final week of August, and unfortunately that hasn’t been the case at all. The Nats’ last five games have been started by Cory Abbott, Anibal Sanchez, Paolo Espino, Josiah Gray and Patrick Corbin.

Yes, they’ve been far more effective than they were nearly three months ago. But outside of Gray, nobody else from this quintet realistically is going to be part of the long-term plan around here. Even Erick Fedde, set to return from a shoulder injury Tuesday in Seattle, remains a shorter-term solution, something of a bridge starter until younger, more promising prospects arrive.

But when will they actually arrive? Will we actually see anybody new and intriguing before season’s end?

By all accounts, yes. It’s going to require a little more patience, though.

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García day-to-day with groin strain, Cruz returns from dizzy spell

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Though he’s not in tonight’s lineup, Luis García said he’s fine after suffering a minor groin strain during Friday night’s game against the Padres.

The young Nationals shortstop had an MRI this morning to determine the extent of the injury, which he suffered while running out a groundball in the sixth inning of a 10-5 loss. Manager Davey Martinez referred to the ailment as “a little bit of a strain in his left groin,” and said García will be day-to-day until it heals.

“I want him to get treatment today,” Martinez said. “Hopefully later on he’s available to pinch-hit. We’ll see how it goes.”

The groin injury came only two days after Garcia had to leave a game in Chicago with a sore knee, creating at least some concern about the state of the 22-year-old’s legs, and raising the question of whether the organization might be on the verge of promoting recently acquired shortstop C.J. Abrams.

Had García gone on the injured list, it’s possible the Nationals would’ve replaced him on the roster with Abrams, one of the key prospects they got last week from San Diego for Juan Soto and Josh Bell. The 21-year-old shortstop entered the day batting .296 (8-for-27) with two doubles, two RBIs, four stolen bases and a .725 OPS in seven games for Triple-A Rochester.

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Voit, Gore to join Nats in Philly, Abrams reporting to Rochester

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Three of the six players the Nationals acquired from the Padres this week, all of them age 18-20, won’t be sniffing the major leagues for some time. The other three, though, are poised to join the club before season’s end, one of them as soon as tonight.

Luke Voit, the lone veteran to be included in the blockbuster deal that sent Juan Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego, is scheduled to meet the team in Philadelphia and will probably be in the lineup for tonight’s series opener against the Phillies.

The 31-year-old will see time both at first base and designated hitter the rest of the way, according to manager Davey Martinez. Though he had pedestrian numbers this season with the Padres (a .225/.317/.416 slash line with 13 homers and 48 RBIs in 344 plate appearances), Voit’s .733 OPS is as good as anyone currently in the Nats lineup.

Over parts of six big league seasons with the Cardinals, Yankees and Padres, Voit owns a strong .838 OPS and 86 homers. He led the American League with 22 homers and finished ninth in MVP voting during the condensed 2020 season.

And because he’s under club control through 2024 (same as Soto), Voit could figure into the Nationals’ plans beyond this year.

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