Young trio ready to take over Nationals rotation

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – While Wednesday’s news about Stephen Strasburg – he’s been shut down again after experiencing another setback in his latest attempt to return from thoracic outlet surgery – proved to be the biggest headline on Day 1 of Nationals spring training, truthfully, the bigger story was the presence of three other pitchers stationed along one wall of the home clubhouse.

Much as they hope Strasburg can still have a positive impact for this club, the Nats already have transitioned to building the next generation of their rotation on the broad shoulders of three young starters: MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli and Josiah Gray.

Strasburg may not be healthy at the moment, but those other three guys are. And that probably has more significance to the franchise’s long-term well-being than anything.

“Starting pitching is very important if you want to compete in the big leagues and have a good team,” Gore said. “The starters need to … good teams have good starting pitching. There’s a responsibility that we have a job to do. I think that’s probably the best way to put it.”

There’s a responsibility, and there’s also a certain amount of pressure on Gore, Cavalli and Gray to live up to their billing. The Nationals’ chances of kicking their rebuild into serious gear rest in large part on the development of those three into frontline, big-league starters.

Thing is, none is fully proven at this level yet.

Gore has had the most success of the group, having produced a 1.50 ERA through the first nine starts of his career last season with the Padres. But those numbers quickly ballooned as his elbow began to flare up, and following his trade to the Nationals on Aug. 2, the lefty never did make it back from the injured list to debut for his new club.

Gore (who, by the way, has switched from uniform No. 50 to the unconventional-for-a-pitcher No. 1) insists he’s fully healthy now. He arrived in West Palm Beach nearly two weeks early and has already faced live hitters.

“It just felt 100 percent,” he said of state of his arm now versus last season. “I can kind of do everything on the mound that I need to do. It’s not dialed in right now, by any means, but my body’s strong. We should be ready to roll by the end of spring.”

Cavalli has been the organization’s top-rated pitching prospect since he was drafted out of Oklahoma in 2020. But his August major league debut was a disappointing one, and the right-hander immediately landed on the IL after it with shoulder inflammation.

Like Gore, Cavalli insists there are no physical limitations right now when he pitches.

“Everything feels right,” he said. “My body feels great. Mind’s in a good spot. I don’t feel there’s any hurdles I need to get over.”

Good health was the best thing Gray had going for him in 2022. The right-hander took his lumps at times, going 7-10 with a 5.02 ERA while leading the league in walks (66) and homers surrendered (38). But he made 28 starts and totaled 148 2/3 innings before the Nationals shut him down in late September, not wanting to push him too far beyond his previous career high of 130 innings pitched.

Gray’s task this season: Apply the mechanical tweaks he made over the winter – a straighter line toward the plate with his delivery – and start having more consistent success.

“Going into this year, I think he understands he belongs here. He fits,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Last year, he had that sense of feeling, but it was a little different. He made it through the year without any injuries. Now this year he gets a chance to go out and prove that not only does he belong here, but now he can go out and dominate this league.”

With veteran Patrick Corbin and newly acquired right-hander Trevor Williams rounding out the rotation, the Nationals would seem to already have their starting five determined as camp opens. Martinez, though, wasn’t willing to go that far when asked Wednesday, suggesting Cavalli in particular still has to earn his job this spring.

“We’ll see how he fares in spring training, but he has an opportunity to go out there and become either our fourth or fifth starter,” the manager said. “That’s exciting to me. Watching him, physically, he looks ready.”

Cavalli is perfectly fine with the lack of any guarantees about his job status entering the spring. He prefers it this way.

“I’m just trying to drown out the noise of it being my second big league camp, any pressure I could put on myself,” he said. “I just feel like that’s fake to me. It just doesn’t put my head in a great spot, so I try to avoid that and focus on the job and the work I need to do.”

There’s ample reason to believe what was the majors’ worst rotation in 2022 can dramatically improve in 2023, which in turn could help speed up the overall rebuilding project. But given the lack of track record for all three young pitchers, there’s still ample reason to worry about what might happen if the trio doesn’t pan out.

“There’s some guys who are very talented,” Gore said. “But it’s also cool, because it comes down to: If we pitch the way we’re capable of pitching, we’re going to be a lot better.”

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