The Nationals are in need of pitching reinforcements. That much is clear about the current staff under Jim Hickey, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. The current and future rotation features promising youngsters Josiah Gray, Mackenzie Gore, and Cade Cavalli, the latter of whom is set to miss the 2023 season. As the team rebuilds, developing pitchers who can succeed at the major league level is priority number one, and it is something that the Nationals have struggled to do compared to other organizations.
Over the past decade-plus, the Nationals have seen some of the league's best starting pitching and best rotations overall. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer, and, believe it or not, Patrick Corbin, have contributed to these stellar rotations and led the team to multiple playoff appearances. From 2012 to 2019 the Nationals recorded the second-lowest team ERA in MLB just under the Dodgers. In the three seasons since, their team ERA is second-highest, only lower than the Rockies. It's been a sharp decline across the board, but the disappearance of good Nationals' rotations has been especially notable.
Unfortunately for General Manager Mike Rizzo, Scherzers and Strasburgs don't grow on trees. They don't grow much at all, in fact, and when they do they often require some expensive fertilizer that will run teams a few hundred million dollars or so. Also, in the case of certain ex-Diamondback lefties, they will sometimes grow for one season and completely wither away a year later. Pitching can be unpredictable, to say the least.
All of that background being set, let's try to think along with the Nationals as they dig for pitchers who can perform well enough to stick around in the bigs.
The 2022 Nationals saw three pitchers make their big league debuts: Cade Cavalli, Evan Lee, and Jackson Tetrault. Cavalli finished 2021 in AAA and made his long-awaited debut after almost a hundred more innings of AAA seasoning. His fellow ranked prospect Lee jumped to the bigs from AA, whereas Tetreault made a bit of a surprise debut and pitched pretty well in two of his four big league starts.
I've highlighted a few similar types of players who will hope to debut in 2023. The first two are ranked prospects with experience in the upper minors, while the third is more obscure but could earn a shot with a strong minor league season.
Brzycky (pronounced BRICK-see), a right-handed relief pitcher, has been featured in a Prospect Spotlight here, check that out for a more complete breakdown. The 23-year-old would need to be added to the 40-man to be called up so he may not be first in line, but he is ready to make an impact now. The Virginia Tech signee reached AAA in 2022 and features some major-league heat. He's likely to debut some time in 2023 depending on injuries, underperformance, and potential trades from the current bullpen.
Some level of depth is always needed in the majors, and if Brzycky can continue to show strikeout stuff in the upper minors he can force his way into Washington. Young, live arms like Brzycky should absolutely be tested out by the Nationals, as getting experience and growth is presently more valuable to the club than marginal improvements from veteran arms. As the team rebuilds, low-leverage situations are frequent and even high-leverage spots cannot really alter playoff odds for the team.
In a sense, I would advocate for a worse performance from the bullpen if it means more opportunity for Brzycky and young arms with upside. That sounds backwards, but think of it this way: I would rather see one breakout performance from a young reliever than several average performances from average veterans. The Nationals have done a decent job of this in recent years, allowing players with team control like Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, and Hunter Harvey to get chances, but they've also given extended looks to players like Paolo Espino. In 2023, the Nationals can help themselves by forgoing Espino, age 36, or Alex Colome, age 34, to try to get more out of players like Mason Thompson and debut players like Brzycky. Short of that, they can at least make a stronger attempt to turn veteran Colome-types into younger players at the deadline, which is something the team did not do last year.
Irvin is another prospect we've analyzed in a Prospect Spotlight recently, so check out the full scouting report there. Right-handed Irvin is notably not related to southpaw Cole Irvin of the Orioles, as far as I can tell, but he hopes to establish himself in the majors and perhaps match the performance of the elder Irvin.
It's not clear whether Jake will be used as a starter, a reliever, or something in between, but it is clear that he has been throwing 98+ in Spring Training. That plus a decent showing in AA last year should be enough to consider him for a promotion or two this season. After all, if he's not on the mound in DC later this season, someone else will be, and they probably won't be pumping 98 now that Cade Cavalli is out for the year. Irvin is 26 already, so he'll need to be given a chance sooner or later if he's ever going to be a piece of the Nationals future.
Irvin is already on the 40-man roster for the team, and could be in the mix to pick up time in the major league rotation if there are any vacancies and he displays durability in the minors. Cory Abbott and Joan Adon could also be in line for available starts, and if those two and the Nationals current rotation pitch well and stay healthy, Irvin may have to wait another year. It's usually safe to assume everyone won't stay healthy, though.
Troop is my favorite player on this list, mostly because he's received even less recognition as a prospect than those previously mentioned, whose outlooks are pretty lukewarm to begin with. He's my pick to come out of nowhere and surprise in 2023, probably out of the bullpen even though he's been a part-time starter in the minor leagues. All he needs is to be given a chance, and then for a bunch more stuff to go right after that.
Relief pitchers are famously volatile, and there are dudes constantly coming out of even obscure-er obscurity than Troop to succeed in MLB, most of whom play for the Rays. Here's my elevator pitch for Troop: he's left-handed, and he strikes a ton of guys out in the minor leagues. That should be all you need to know to want to see him given a chance over Paolo Espino. Not to pick on Espino too much, but he's 36, which is old, and he's not going to get any better than he already is, which is not very good.
FanGraphs described Troop as having "an extremely vertical arm slot that creates weird angle on his upper-80s fastball". That description of "weird" is usually a good thing in a league full of similar-looking pitchers, especially for left-handers. "Upper-80s fastball" is usually a bad thing, especially if you're Paolo Espino, but Troop is already fooling hitters with that mild heat. If the Nationals can figure out what makes Troop effective and focus on his strengths, they can turn him into a legit major-league pitcher. If they can't, another team might see his AA performance and do it themselves, and that team might be the Rays.
Troop pitched over 112 innings at AA in 2022 and a single game at AAA. To earn a 2022 debut he is competing with Matt Cronin and Jose A. Ferrer, who are the only two lefty relievers on the Nationals 40-man, and a handful of non-roster invitees, and whoever winds up pitching well in AAA this season. Cronin is probably a better bet to debut in 2023 given his roster status and AAA experience, but Jackson Tetreault wasn't on the 40-man before his debut in 2022 either. Alex Troop: why not?
The Nationals absolutely need to develop some league average pitching if they want to win games now or in the future. The team has gotten relatively little from their farm in recent years, and has seen some injuries to key players. There is more opportunity for innings in DC than just about anywhere in the majors, as the team is really still beginning the process of building up major-league depth. Between Zach Brzycky, Jake Irvin, Alex Troop, and some guys even fewer baseball fans have ever heard of, there will be a lot of unknowns trying to make themselves known as the Nationals rebuild in 2023.
Who else do you want to see debut this season?