What will Nats' rotation look like in September?

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.

Cade Cavalli has been on everyone’s radar since spring training, and for good reason since he entered the year as the Nationals’ top-rated prospect. The right-hander has had something of an erratic season at Triple-A Rochester, but his numbers over a 13-start stretch now – 2.10 ERA, 1.019 WHIP, 77 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings – are undeniably impressive.

Impressive enough to merit his long-awaited major league debut in the next week? Possibly. With the Nationals set to open a six-game homestand Friday against the Reds and Athletics, a prime opportunity exists for the organization to let Cavalli debut in front of a D.C. crowd and against a non-contender.

If the decision-makers actually believe he’s ready. Which remains somewhat in doubt due to Cavalli’s tendencies to rack up high pitch counts (109 of them in only five innings Saturday) instead of recording quick outs.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on him,” manager Davey Martinez said this weekend in San Diego. “He’s had some consistency as of late, which is kind of nice, and his stuff is actually really playing well. But we’ve got to get that pitch count down. He’s got to be more efficient.”

Cavalli’s arrival has been anticipated all year, but there’s a potentially more intriguing starter inching closer to his Nationals debut who wasn’t on anyone’s radar until three weeks ago: MacKenzie Gore.

The 23-year-old was one of the prize acquisitions in this month’s trade with the Padres, a young left-hander who has drawn praise as lofty as comparisons to Clayton Kershaw.

Gore has yet to pitch, though, because he’s been on the IL with elbow inflammation. There is good news, though, to report there: He has been increasing his throws on flat ground over the last week, building up to 120 feet. And Martinez says he’s on track to throw off a mound for the first time once the team return home at week’s end.

The Nationals will make sure Gore is healthy and in no danger of suffering any more serious injury before they let him pitch, but they do very much want him to pitch for them before the season ends.

So that’s a possible September rotation featuring Gore, Cavalli and Gray, which would feel a whole lot more encouraging than any starting trio the Nats have used at any other point this season. There is a question, however, whether Gray will be pitching that much in September.

The organization has been watching his workload carefully and has suggested all along he could be shut down at some point. Or, at least, skipped over more than once to ensure he doesn’t reach too high an innings count before the offseason.

Team officials haven’t outlined any specific target number, but Gray’s total currently stands at 123 1/3, which is 37 more innings that he threw in all of 2021 and 6 2/3 innings shy of his career high of 130 in 2019 as a Dodgers farmhand.

And then there’s Cole Henry, who earlier this season looked like a good bet to join Cavalli in the big league rotation at some point, touted by the Nationals as a highly polished, four-pitch starter out of a big-name college program (LSU). The right-hander, though, hasn’t pitched since June. And late last week he told the Bustin’ Loose Baseball podcast he will be undergoing thoracic outlet surgery, the potentially career-altering procedure that has derailed Stephen Strasburg and Will Harris’ return to the mound this season.

Perhaps Henry will still figure into the mix in 2023, but at this point he has to be considered a major question mark.

It’s yet another reminder that as much as an organization can believe it has a solid plan in place to develop young pitching, unexpected roadblocks are always sure to get in the way.

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