The 2022 season was a disaster for the Washington Nationals. One of the few bright spots in the organization was the bullpen, which was a collection of MLB veterans such as Erasmo Ramirez, Carl Edwards, and younger players trying to establish themselves such as Hunter Harvey and Jordan Weems. While the starting pitching situation is also worth talking about, the focus of this article is to examine the expectations and breakout potential of the Nationals bullpen for 2023.
The Nationals bullpen ranked as the 15th best bullpen on a team that finished as the worst team in baseball (Fangraphs). This group could have done even better if they weren’t taxed so much as a result of a starting pitching staff that could never last deep into games. Only 6 other bullpens in the league threw more innings than the Nats bullpen in 2022 and five Nats relievers threw in over 50 games. Steve Cishek, who is now retired, threw the most with 69 games. However, the 2023 season should be different. The starting rotation was a mess in 2022 with 15 different starting pitchers. This year the Nationals should have more solidified starting pitching with the addition of Trevor Williams through free agency and Mackenzie Gore returning from injury.
Several relievers broke out in 2022 and exceeded expectations. The first is Carl Edwards Jr. Edwards, now 31, had a successful start to his career with the Chicago Cubs. After his Cubs tenure ending in 2019, he bounced around before landing with the Nationals for the 2022 season. He pitched in 57 games to the tune of a 2.76 ERA, his lowest in a full season since 2018. Edwards has solidified himself as a crucial piece of the bullpen for this upcoming season.
Hunter Harvey was also someone who proved himself this past season, pitching in 38 games with a 2.52 ERA. Harvey had struggled in seasons prior with the Orioles but has now found himself as a reliable hard throwing reliever in the Nats’ bullpen.
Erasmo Ramirez is yet another reliever who had a great 2022 season. The 32 year-old pitched in 60 games with a 2.92 ERA, the best of his 10 year career. These three will make up the core of the Nationals bullpen in 2023 and hopefully will not be taxed so heavily by inconsistent starting pitching.
Several other arms had decent 2022 seasons as well. Kyle Finnegan had a decent year and will be a part of the Nat’s pen once again. The same can be said for Victor Arano, who pitched well at times but also struggled and was out with injury for some time.
Now let’s look at some potential breakout candidates and guys who will be competing for a spot on the opening day roster.
Mason Thompson is a guy who could be poised for a breakout 2023 season. In 2022 he pitched in 24 games at the major league level with a 2.92 ERA. The Nats have plenty of hard throwing relievers and Thompson could figure into the equation as long as he remains healthy.
Another bullpen candidate who could earn himself a spot is Jordan Weems. Weems is another hard-throwing righty but is someone who needs to get hitters out more consistently. Weems pitched to a 5.22 ERA in 2022. There’s also Thad Ward , who was a waiver pickup and will likely be in the bullpen as he was a rule 5 draft selection and has to be on the major league roster.
There are some others who will likely factor in somehow as well. Paolo Espino is a player who could be used in many different situations including starting in the rotation. His role is probably the most uncertain right now. Tanner Rainey is a familiar name, but had Tommy John Surgery in August and might not pitch at all this season. Matt Cronin is a minor leaguer and unfamiliar name who could have a shot at the majors with a strong 2022 season with a sub 3 ERA in 48 minor-league games. The Nationals need left-handed reliever help and he is poised to be one of the top lefties in the pen entering spring training. The other lefty option is of course Sean Doolittle, who was signed to a minor league deal and should be good to go in spring training as he has recovered from an arm injury which hampered him last season.
We can figure that the bullpen will be made up of about seven to eight players. The ones most likely to fill these spots (in my opinion) are the following in no specific order.
Carl Edwards Jr.
Other options include Jordan Weems, Mason Thompson, Joan Adon, and Paolo Espino along with a plethora of minor league talent.
This is certainly up for debate as the Nationals could add a free agent or two at some point or have minor league relievers step up in Spring Training which is definitely possible.
In a season that will most likely not end with a playoff berth, the Nationals 2023 bullpen should offer some excitement and intrigue for Nationals fans.
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Statistics compiled from Baseball Reference.