Is the 2024 Nationals starting rotation already set? It's a simple question, and the answer will determine the strength of next year's team. Nats fans know that the team's historic success has been built on strong starting pitching, and we know that recent Patrick Corbin-led rotations have fallen well short of that standard. When you look more carefully, the current rotation is even worse than you may think.
Here's the good news: Josiah Gray is having an All-Star season with a 3.69 ERA, and MacKenzie Gore has shown huge potential and has remained healthy, pitching better than his 4.62 ERA might indicate. Even with their promising campaigns, the Nationals starting pitchers rank 24th in MLB in ERA and 28th in FIP. Nationals starters have pitched the 15th-most innings of MLB rotations (partially because they haven't used any openers or bullpen games), and rank in the bottom 5 teams in most strikeouts, fewest walks, and most home runs allowed per nine innings. That explains the starters' 29-43 record.
The combined performance from Corbin, Gray, Gore, Trevor Williams, and the 5th spot split between Chad Kuhl, Jake Irvin, and Joan Adon has been shoddy. However, the team leads all of MLB in a unique way: every single start so far has been given to one of the seven aforementioned pitchers. That the team has only used seven starters through mid-August, something which may continue through the end of the season, stands out in a league with pitching injuries, roster crunches, and the waiver wire carousel at an all-time high.
The Nationals Have Used Fewer Starters Than Any Team
Almost every team in MLB has used 9 or 10 starters so far this year, and many have had 15 or more pitchers start, those being the teams using openers and bullpen games most frequently. The Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals have each used only seven starters: and examining this has many implications for the two teams.
In the case of the Blue Jays, Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, and Yusei Kikuchi have each made every start while Alek Manoah has only missed a few due to being demoted, with Trevor Richards and Hyun-Jin Ryu picking up the remaining work. This is a clear case of a contending team benefitting from good health from high-value and high-salary veterans, and their starting staff ranks 4th in ERA as a result.
Like the Blue Jays, the Nationals have had four starters pitch on every turn all season long, and have only shuffled the 5th spot a few times between three pitchers. This is extremely rare in the modern MLB, with almost every other team only seeing healthy seasons from two or three of their top pitchers. This does not correlate with success, as the excellent Rays have only had two pitchers surpassing 20 starts so far and have used 16 pitchers as starters in total. The Dodgers, who lead the NL West, haven't had a single starter of the 14 they've used reach 20 starts yet.
The benefit of keeping a full rotation healthy and pitching for long stretches is clear. When Corbin, Williams, Gray, Gore, and Irvin can be relied on to always take their turn, there is less risk of taxing the bullpen with spot starts and long relief days. When fewer young pitchers are being shuttled between the upper minors and the big leagues, they have more consistency to develop their routine and they know what is expected of them. Many prospects leaguewide have taken a few turns in MLB and then a few turns in AAA, bouncing up and down like a pinball. Those players would certainly prefer the consistency of sticking in MLB once they make it.
It's great that the Nationals staff, especially youngsters Gray, Gore, and Irvin, have been healthy and consistently available. Durability is a skill, an important one that some players excel in and some players never find. However, it's impossible to fully know which players are truly durable and which are are in a lucky stretch of health that will eventually prove to be rare in their careers. On an organizational level, you can't have a depth chart full of Cal Ripken Juniors. Cracks will always form, and bad injury luck can ruin one or multiple seasons for an ambitious club.
The Omen of 2024
The Nationals lack pitching depth. They have little depth in the majors, in the high minors, and in the low minors. When they drafted Travis Sykora in the 3rd round this year, a high schooler with preexisting injury concerns, he became their 3rd best pitching prospect. Their #1 pitching prospect is still Cade Cavalli, whose preseason Tommy John surgery this year remains the only significant injury to the '23 rotation.
Let's imagine a world where the 2023 Nats rotation had horrible injury luck instead of the best in the league. If one of Gray or Gore had their seasons ended with the other needing multiple IL stints, if one of Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams had been DFA'd and the other took a comebacker to the ankle, and if Chad Kuhl had the same season that he did. In other words, what if we were one of the teams that needed 14 starters instead of 7?
This world would leave Jake Irvin and Joan Adon out to dry alongside some half-seasons from a few of the regulars. We would have seen veterans like Jose Ureña and Wily Peralta eat some innings and then some too-early tryouts from Jackson Rutledge and Cole Henry. If none of that worked we would see Luis Cessa and Tommy Romero, Thaddeus Ward and Jackson Tetreault, and whatever alternate reality waiver wire claims we could grab. Feel free to stop me if I say a name with any ounce of promise. Beware! Paolo Espino and Cory Abbott lurk ahead!
It's great that we aren't in this world, but that doesn't mean it can't happen next year, or the year after. Teams like the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Guardians have a stable of MLB-ready pitching prospects with real potential in case of injuries, and they've had to use them. The Nationals have Jake Irvin, and zilch. In 2024, the team might not sign any significant free agent names and try to use the exact same rotation again, or a similar one. That move can easily backfire, and even with continued health the rotation has been one of the league's worst anyways.
Let this be a reminder that injury luck is never guaranteed, just like having a job or that your car will keep working. While the Nationals offense will be injected with some dynamism from the farm soon, the team will need to make moves, jolt their development, and spend money to insure against potential disaster. Insurance policies are boring, but it's the teams with the strongest ones that perform well consistently.
The best way to increase depth isn't to trade the entire Major League team for a dozen pitching prospects, but that would help a little bit. The best way is adding from the top - to sign and trade for proven, durable stars. Prospect fliers are cool, but they have a small chance of turning into what Kevin Gausman already is. The Padres have struggled with pitching prospect development, so they spent a ton of their farm and their payroll, went out and got themselves a Darvish, a Musgrove, and a Snell to combine with their hitting talent and it took them to the NLCS. That's exactly what the Nationals need to do in the next few years to compete in a scarily strong division. Next year's rotation could use some tweaking.