When the Nationals placed MacKenzie Gore on the injured list, a void opened within their current six-man rotation of starting pitchers. Although they could have decreased each of their recovery periods by a day, the team turned to young right-hander Jackson Rutledge to start Wednesday game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Rutledge becomes Washington's most highly-touted youngster to make his Major League debut in 2023. Standing at 6-foot-8 and 251 pounds, Rutledge is rated as the organization's No. 13 overall prospect, per MLB Pipeline, and had previously been viewed amongst the club's top five prospects.
Rutledge was selected No. 17 overall by the Nationals in the 2019 MLB Draft – one pick after outfielder Corbin Carroll, the potential NL Rookie of the Year – out of San Jacinto Junior College. With no pitchers securing the fifth starting spot over the course of the prior couple years, the hope was that Rutledge would eventually bolster the starting staff as a much-needed young arm with upside.
Rutledge saw early success in his rookie year as a professional pitcher. In his 10-start debut split between the rookie level, short-season Auburn and Low-A Hagerstown, Rutledge went 2–0 with a 3.13 earned run average (ERA) and struck out more than a batter per inning.
After that, adversity struck. His 2020 season was effectively lost due to the league-wide ramifications of COVID-19. Then he battled through three separate stints on the injured list in 2021, to go along with ineffectiveness in the 13 starts he did make.
He rebounded to a degree in 2022, but still posted a lackluster 4.90 ERA in 20 starts in Fredericksburg, and the 23-year-old was gradually becoming too old for the level he was pitching at. Without a breakthrough, he was bound to face an uphill battle towards becoming an impactful Major Leaguer.
Well, that breakthrough happened this season. Rutledge was added to the 40-man roster during the offseason to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. Then the Nationals doubled down by allowing him to skip High-A and begin his season in Harrisburg.
Rather than struggling as a result of this aggressive approach, Rutledge posted a 3.16 ERA in 12 starts at the Double-A level, earning himself a promotion to Rochester – one stop away from the big leagues. Despite his less impressive results in Triple-A, he still cemented himself as the most worthy candidate to earn a call-up if an opportunity were to present itself.
As for the start itself, it looked like Rutledge's Major League debut. There was some bad luck mixed in, and it was easy to see that he has the requisite talent, but the results were what they were: seven earned runs on 10 hits with only two strikeouts in fewer than four innings.
The two most apparent criticisms seem to be that he struggled to get ahead in the count (which has at times been an issue for him in the minors), and that his changeup may need some refinement. As Mark Zuckerman of MASNSports.com noted, six of the hits Rutledge allowed came against the changeup.
With that said, he looks like a big leaguer – and not solely based on his size. His fastball sat in the neighborhood of 96-97 miles per hour, and he never looked flustered, even in spite of the poor results he allowed. Both of those traits will benefit him as he continues his journey towards becoming a solidified Major League pitcher.
With Gore's season likely over, Rutledge will have more opportunities to cement himself as a viable candidate to begin 2024 on the Major League active roster. Aside from Gore and Josiah Gray, the starting staff is far from set in stone. The franchise could opt to move on from Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams, and rookie Jake Irvin has raised a few eyebrows, but likely won't be guaranteed anything during Spring Training.
As long as he's able to hold onto a spot in the rotation, Rutledge could see as many as three more starts before the regular season ends on October 1. In a rebuilding season like this, every chance the Nationals can get to observe a young player like Rutledge is invaluable.