Washington Nationals Minor League Overview: Pitching Pipeline

The Nationals have been praised for their ability to revitalize their once desolate farm system, but even still, most of their top prospects are position players. What kind of reinforcements can we expect from the Nationals' farm?
Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals / G Fiume/GettyImages

The Washington Nationals are in the midst of a full-scale rebuild. Four years removed from their World Series title, the active roster and minor league system have been completely retooled. Earlier this offseason, Washington announced the promotion of Eddie Longosz to Assistant General Manager of Player Development, along with other scouting department changes. The Nationals ranked 8th in MLB.com's Minor League system evaluation in August, improving seven slots from their previous ranking in 2022. Today, we will identify pitchers in the Nationals' Top-30 prospect list and discuss the progress of GM Mike Rizzo's rebuild from a pitching perspective.

(The prospect list used is MLB.com's post-season prospect rankings)

Cade Cavalli, No. 4 Prospect

2023 stats: none (Tommy John Surgery) Age: 25, 6-foot-4, 232 pounds

Cavalli lost a vital year of his development due to an elbow injury sustained in Spring Training before the 2023 season. The now 25-year-old is expected to return to Major League action in June. What can reasonably be expected from Cade? He's appeared in one career game, and it was a shaky start, a loss to the Cincinnati Reds in August of 2022. The former first-round from Oklahoma pick flew through the minor leagues in two seasons, striking out 279 batters in 220.1 innings.

Growing pains should be expected from Cavalli. While he's been successful in the minors, it sometimes does not translate right away. Patience and transparency should be kept in mind with Cavalli this season. Once Cavalli returns, he should be on an innings limit to preserve his arm. The Nationals will know what Cavalli brings to the table after the 2024 season.

Jake Bennett, No. 10 Prospect

2023 stats (A and AA combined):15 games, 1-6 record, 63 innings, 3.14 ERA, 73 SO, 16 BB, 1.21 WHIP Age: 23, 6-foot-6, 234 pounds

Like Cade Cavalli, Jake Bennett is a draft pick from the University of Oklahoma but was selected in the second round. Bennett began his minor league season on a tear in Fredericksburg, pitching to a 1.93 ERA in his first 42 innings. After a promotion to Wilmington, the left-hander struggled to a 5.57 ERA in 21 innings. Bennett was shut down due to injury for over a month and returned for three starts. Then it was announced that he would need season-ending Tommy John Surgery, likely sidelining him for the entire 2024 season.

It's a bummer for Bennett, who was lining up to be a quick riser in the Nationals' minor league system. The lefty's fastball can reach 96 mph with a skilled changeup. He works quickly and doesn't walk many batters. He's a bit old school, a get-the-ball-and-throw-it type of pitcher. Bennett projects as a frontline starter, even post-surgery.

Travis Sykora, No. 11 Prospect

2023 stats: none (Recent Draft Pick out of High School) Age: 19, 6-foot-6, 232 pounds

Selected in the third round of the 2023 MLB Draft, Travis Sykora signed for Top-35 money, according to MLB.com. The 19-year-old's fastball can reach triple digits on the radar gun, and his frame equates to an odd delivery. Sykora pitched to a .84 ERA in 58 innings during his senior year of high school. At just 19, Sykora should be viewed as a project pitcher unless he forces evaluators to think otherwise, but scouts heralded Sykora's potential as one of the best High School arms in the draft. Nevertheless, a pitcher that inexperienced needs time to find himself at the professional level.

Jarlin Susana, No. 12 Prospect

2023 stats: (A)17 games, 1-6 record, 63 innings, 5.14 ERA, 62 SO, 40 BB, 1.52 WHIP Age: 19, 6-foot-6, 235 pounds

Acquired in the Juan Soto trade with the San Diego Padres, 19-year-old Jarlin Susana is another project pitcher for the Nationals. Signed as a 17-year-old from the Dominican Republic, Susana's fastball consistently sits at 100mph and occasionally touches 103mph. Jarlin is nothing short of electric on the mound, but struggles to control his high octane arsenal. Although Susana has started 29 of his 30 minor league games, it would not be a surprise to see him appear out of the bullpen in the Majors. Still, the Nats will give the young right-hander every opportunity to develop as a starting pitcher.

Jackson Rutledge, No. 13 Prospect

2023 stats (MLB): 4 games, 1-1 record, 20 innings, 6.75 ERA, 12 SO, 6 BB, 1.50 WHIP
(AA and AAA): 23 games, 8-4 record, 119 innings, 3.71 ERA, 106 SO, 55 BB, 1.27 WHIP Age:24, 6-foot-8, 251 pounds

Promoted to the Majors in September, former first-round pick Rutledge struggled to find his footing in four games. His first career win came against Atlanta, pitching five innings while allowing just one run over three hits. The tall right-hander's fastball reaches 96mph but can be increasingly flat, creating an issue for him. Rutledge added a two-seam fastball prior to the season, and it helped his production in 2023. During his professional career, injuries have plagued Rutledge, including a shoulder injury in 2022. Last season was his first fully healthy season.

Rutledge will enter 2024 Spring Training with the goal of making the starting rotation. His path to the fifth starter is unlikely but not impossible. The key for Rutledge is having an effective and healthy Spring Training. The Nationals' rotation is not strong, so with a good Spring showing, Rutledge could force his way onto the Opening Day roster.

DJ Herz, No. 16 Prospect

2023 stats (AA): 22 games, 3-3 record, 94.1 innings, 3.43 ERA, 133 SO, 57 BB, 1.31 WHIP Age:23, 6-foot-2, 175 pounds

A former eighth-round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs, DJ Herz was acquired by Washington in the Jeimer Candelario trade on July 31. Herz posted a 2.55 ERA in 35.1 innings after being acquired by Washington, quickly raising eyebrows about the left-hander's potential. DJ struck out 53 batters in those 35.1 innings. The lefty's fastball sits around 93mph, but the changeup is where Herz makes his money. His delivery is a bit funky, with the ball coming from a side-slot arm angle, difficult for hitters to pick up. Herz struggles to throw strikes at times, hence his side-slot delivery.

Herz has some of the best potential in the farm system due to his ability to strike batters out. He's a candidate to quickly rise through the Nats' minor league system in 2024. It's very possible Nationals fans could see DJ Herz in D.C. this season.

Cole Henry, No. 18 Prospect

2023 stats (A, A+, AA): 14 games, 33.1 innings. 6.21 ERA, 37 SO, 16 BB, 1.47 WHIP. Age:24, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds

Flashback to 2022 where Cole Henry was dominating the minor leagues and on the fast track to the Majors. After reaching AAA, Henry was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, the same injury that derailed Stephen Strasburg's career. It's unfortunate for Henry, who was just a call away from the Majors. Now, faced with a tough recovery, the right-hander is fairing well. Despite his high ERA in 2023, Henry was moved through Nats' affiliates quickly, signifying good health for the right-hander.

2024 will be another battle for staying healthy for Henry. The potential is there, as he posted a 1.71 ERA in 31.2 innings in 2023 and a 2.30 ERA across 47 innings pitched in 2021. The 2020 second-round pick from LSU has a lot to prove.

Andry Lara, No. 24 Prospect

2023 stats (A+): 23 games, 6-8 record, 98.1 innings, 4.58 ERA, 66 SO, 34 BB, 1.26 WHIP. Age:21, 6-foot-4, 180 pounds

A Venezuelan free agent signee in 2019, Andry Lara has three professional seasons under his belt at 21 years old. An under-the-radar prospect in the Nats' system, Lara was highly touted in his free agent class, signing for $1.25 million. His first season in A Fredericksburg 2022 was rocky, pitching to a 5.51 ERA in 101.1 innings. Lara showed enough to be promoted to High A Wilmington and had another odd season in 2023. While his ERA, walk total, and WHIP lowered, his strikeout total also shrunk. Lara also decreased his opponent's batting average to .241, but he did not have his swing-and-miss arsenal in Wilmington. Another season of development in A+ seems accurate for Andry.

Mitchell Parker, No. 26 Prospect

2023 stats (AA and AAA): 28 games, 9-7 record, 124 innings, 4.72 ERA, 150 SO, 61 BB, 1.42 WHIP Age:24, 6-foot-4, 224 pounds

After a 2022 season that turned heads across the organization, Mitchell Parker came back down to earth a bit in 2023. Parker posted a 2.88 ERA in 2022, following a 4.87 ERA in 2021. Parker is a wild left-hander with a high strikeout and walk totals. Limited control of his arsenal led to just 4.42 innings per appearance in 2023. Mitchell earned a September call-up to AAA and pitched to a 10.45 ERA in three starts. Although he struggled in AAA, expect Parker to still begin the season in Rochester.

The fifth-round pick in the MLB Draft has the potential to become a back-end starting pitcher in the Majors. Parker's inability to find the strike zone hurts his production on the mound, limiting his innings. Major League batters capitalize on free opportunities more frequently than minor leaguers.

Zach Brzykcy, No. 29 Prospect

2023 stats: None (Tommy John Surgery) Age: 24, 6-foot-2, 232 pounds

Zach Brzykcy would've made his Major League debut in 2023 if he didn't undergo Tommy John surgery. The former UDFA signee from Virginia Tech was dominant in 2022, posting a 1.76 ERA in 61.1 innings, reaching the AAA level. Brzykcy's fastball sits at 97mph, with a powerful curveball in the mid-80s. Control can be an issue for Zach, as he walked 29 batters in 2022. Brzykcy recorded 14 saves in 2022 and could be developed as the Nats' closer of the future.

System Evaluation

Let's get to the point. From a pitching point of view, the Nats' Minor League pipeline is not strong. The franchise rebuild began at the famous 2021 Trade Deadline sell-off, seeing about eight players depart the team in just over 24 hours. The Nats also traded cornerstone player Juan Soto a year later. Most of the minor leaguers acquired in these deals were hitters. It's puzzling why the front office did not value receiving pitching depth.

Now, ahead of the 2024 season, it seems as if the minor league pitching pipeline is on Cade Cavalli's shoulders. Is it that extreme? Yes, but the lack of pitching depth for Washington is concerning. Injuries and lack of development from high-profile draft picks have riddled the Nationals for years. Seeing Cade Cavalli struggle could signify the failure of another first-round draft pick from GM Mike Rizzo. What could give the system a boost?

Potentially trading a valued commodity such as Lane Thomas, especially while his value's high, is the right move for Mike Rizzo to bolster the pitching system.. Acquiring a high-level pitching prospect should be the priority in return for Thomas, or any trade the Nationals make. Nats' fans love Thomas, but the chance of him regressing is likely. The Nationals need minor-league pitching depth before they need Lane Thomas, but more than anything, the Nats' pitching pipeline needs work, fast.