Washington Nationals Pitching Staff as Spring Training Approaches

On the heels of a season in which pitching often held the Nationals back, what does the staff look like entering Spring Training 2024?
Boston Red Sox v Washington Nationals
Boston Red Sox v Washington Nationals / Mitchell Layton/GettyImages

Now that we’ve broken down the position player portion of the Washington Nationals roster, let’s dive into the pitchers.

The unit doesn’t appear to be complete. They're essentially running back a unit that ranked 27th in earned run average (ERA) last season. In a perfect world, they’d have a better man – or two – at the top of their rotation, and they’re pretty woefully short on depth options in the bullpen. Yet, it seems like the franchise isn’t looking to add any significant arms.

Nevertheless, here’s how the pitching staff currently looks, including superlatives for each likely member of the Opening Day roster.

Ace: Josiah Gray

At 26 years old, this may be the season when we see whether or not Gray can take the next step, or if he has maxed out as a mid-tier starter.

In truth, he may not be the team’s most talented starter, but he is the most accomplished recently. Gray was the Nationals’ lone All-Star in 2023, and in his 30 starts, posted a 3.91 ERA. That’s the most productive that any starting pitcher has been for Washington since Max Scherzer was traded to the Dodgers in 2021.

Perhaps more importantly, he did a much better job at keeping the ball in the field of play. After surrendering 38 home runs in nearly 150 innings in 2022, he cut that total down to 22 over 10 additional innings. If he can maintain - or even improve - this rate while also improving his Strikeout-to-Walk Percentage, he can cement himself as someone the Nationals need to secure long term.

Most Upside: MacKenzie Gore

Although his ERA was significantly higher, the young southpaw could conceivably usurp Gray at the top of the rotation in 2024. He struck out more than a batter per inning, with nearly three punchouts per walk in 2023.

Gore still hasn’t shown that he can handle a full big league season, though. He looked very impressive at times in April and May, but sputtered around the All-Star break and eventually was shut down for the final month of the season.

Another area Gore will need to improve is pitch efficiency. He averaged more than 18 pitches per inning in 2023 – truthfully, Gray was almost as bad in this regard. Do the math; that puts him at 90+ pitches through five innings, or nearly 110 in six frames. That’s reminiscent of Gio Gonzalez in his less effective seasons, which also taxes the bullpen.

His pitches play at the big league level. He just needs to be more consistent, and avoid non-competitive misses outside the zone.

Wild Card: Jake Irvin

There were plenty of questions about Irvin entering 2023. The pandemic took away the 2020 minor league season, and then he missed all of 2021 due to injury. A midseason promotion bought him 15 starts at Double-A Harrisburg in 2022, but he struggled at that level, as well as at Triple-A early last season.

That’s probably all for naught though, because the 26-year-old right-hander was respectable over his 24 major league starts. He also may have been Washington’s most effective starter from mid-June through mid-September, before his lack of experience pitching that many innings in a season may have come back to bite him.

If he’s able to bounce back from the trouble he faced at the tail end of the year, he could easily write his name in Sharpie as part of the starting staff for years to come.

Veteran Placeholder: Patrick Corbin

In a perfect world, one of two things would happen: either Corbin would bounce back to his status as a prototypical No. 2 and outstanding No. 3 starter, or Washington would cut ties with him.

It’s not worth belaboring the point, but Corbin has struggled about as much as any starting pitcher in the league since being part of the World Series champion team in 2019. He trimmed more than a run off his ERA from the prior season, to the lowest it’s been since his 4.66 mark in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. On the other hand, it’s very likely that this is because the team’s overall defense behind him improved.

One more year, everyone. Just one more year until Corbin’s behemoth contract expires. After that, even if there’s a hole in the rotation, it can be filled by a true placeholder or young prospect with theoretical upside.

Placeholder - Part 2: Trevor Williams

Since we’ve established that the Nationals are stuck with Corbin, it seems that Williams is the starter whose role is the most in flux.

Another season with a 5.55 ERA won’t cut it, and neither will the .300 average opponents batted against him, nor average of fewer than five innings per start. Still, until they sign someone else or younger options in the organization show themselves, the Nationals will be stuck with Williams in the starting rotation.

There are others who factor into this conversation. Some of them (like Jackson Rutledge) could use a bit more seasoning in the minor leagues, and another – Cade Cavalli – is hurt. We’ll dive into them soon. For now, let’s move onto the bullpen.

Closer #1: Kyle Finnegan

Although there’s someone on his heels now, Finnegan is the incumbent, so we can probably consider him option 1A. In terms of efficiency, 2023 was arguably the least productive of his four big league seasons. On the other hand, he made 28 saves in 36 opportunities.

Nonetheless, if he wants to stick in a back-of-the-bullpen role beyond this year, he’ll need to improve his ERA (3.76), batting average against (.254), strikeout rate (8.2 per nine innings), and walk rate (3.1 per nine).

Closer #2: Hunter Harvey

Harvey tops Finnegan – in some areas, significantly – in each of the aforementioned categories. He’s also three years younger, but there are two factors working against him: experience and durability.

Until midway through 2019 (as a minor leaguer), Harvey was a starter, and he’s also thrown around 100 fewer major league innings than Finnegan. However, last season was a major step forward for him in terms of productivity and availability, as he stayed healthy enough to take the mound 57 times – nearly 20 more times than his prior career high from the year prior. If he can replicate 2023 this season, he’ll be given more than the 15 save opportunities he received last year.

Secondary Setup Man: Jordan Weems

I may have been a bit too critical of Weems. He has exciting stuff, looked dominant at times, and had some really strong stretches of success during the season. As late as September 3, through 40 appearances, his ERA stood at 2.76, before ballooning by almost a full run by the end of the year.

Still, there are areas to improve upon. His strikeout rate was very good, and he was sparingly hit (elite .194 average against). But his walk rate was definitely too high, at roughly 1.5 per inning. He also had a bit of a proclivity for giving up home runs, and for someone as inexperienced as he is, he’s already 31 years old – so his upside isn’t limitless.

If he looks this season as anything like he did in 2023, there are certainly worse seventh inning men in the league. With some refinement, he could become a true asset.

Moderate Leverage Guy: Mason Thompson

There probably isn't a more puzzling pitcher on the roster. His arsenal is as good as Weems’, if not better. He was sensational for the first month of last season, raising questions of whether he should become the closer. Then he sputtered, to put it lightly.

He’s a lot like MacKenzie Gore in that sense. Funny enough, he, like Gore, was also a trade acquisition from the Padres. He’s absolutely had stretches of dominance, but he’s also seemingly had the yips at times, making him difficult to trust. Think of Blake Treinen from a handful of years ago; Thompson is essentially the same player, including rising through the minor leagues as a starting pitcher.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. Some are never locked into a specific role, and without one, struggle with preparation. Thompson would also frequently pitch multiple innings in an outing, which may have contributed to his struggles later on. In any case, he’s still only 26 years old entering this season. All hope is not lost, and he could still become an instrumental relief arm if scenarios break favorably for him.

Please Just Stay Healthy: Tanner Rainey

Does anyone know what he can be anymore? He was one of Washington’s more trusted bullpen arms during the World Series run, and improved even further the following year. But then his health failed him, eventually resulting in Tommy John surgery.

He’s been good in short samples recently, bad in others, and unavailable more often than not. Until he can keep himself out of the operating room, it’s very difficult to know what to expect. Nonetheless, he’s shown that he can be as good as anyone in this bullpen when he’s right. Can he bounce back?

Lefty Out-Getter Guy (aka LOOGY): Robert Garcia

He wasn't the only option for this role, but he seems to be the best – albeit an uncertain solution.

Across 25 appearances as a 26-year-old rookie, he was a relatively steadying presence. Unlike some other pitchers on this staff, the month of September was particularly kind to Garcia, as he posted a 2.51 ERA in more than 14 innings and didn’t give up a long ball.

For the sake of this role, it’s important to note that lefties batted just .214 against him, in a limited sample size. Unfortunately, a short stretch of that level of success is the best this roster has to offer.

Veteran Middle Reliever: Dylan Floro

At 33 years old, I don’t exactly know what Floro has left in the tank. He was never an overpowering presence, and last year was pretty ugly for him. On the other hand, he produced to a 3.02 ERA or lower in four of his five prior seasons.

Nobody’s looking for dominance from Floro; they just need him to help eat some innings. If he can clean up messes in the middle innings when some less-than-stellar starters have a rough day on the mound, or he can get the job done in later innings when needed, that will be sufficient. Depending on his effectiveness, he may be someone the Nationals look to trade this summer.

That Last Spot: Robert Gsellman or Richard Bleier

I was ready to reserve this spot for lefty Jose A. Ferrer or right-hander Thaddeus Ward, but the Nationals decided to be frisky and sign a pair of veteran journeymen last week, Neither are flashy, which is why they had to settle for minor league contracts with Spring Training invites, but it's very likely that one of them cracks the Opening Day roster.

That pair of recent signees includes 30-year old right-hander Robert Gsellman and lefty Richard Bleier, who will turn 37 years old in mid-April.

The former, Gsellman, pitched in Japan for the Yokohama BayStars last season. Previously, he had spent most of his career with the division rival Mets. He hasn't completed any season with more than 50 innings and an ERA below 4.00, but he's done enough to stick around for parts of seven major league seasons. On a team as starved for pitching as the Nationals, he may be able to perform well enough this spring to earn a roster spot.

The latter, Bleier, has a significantly better resume – last year notwithstanding. As recently as 2021 in Miami, he posted a sub-3.00 ERA in 58 innings. Prior to that, he pitched to a 3.15 ERA in 143 appearances for the Orioles from 2016-19. He also split 2015 between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse as a starter in the Nationals' system, and faired very well (2.57 ERA in 28 games, 171.2 innings). And again, he's a southpaw, which Washington always has a dearth of. If he can channel his younger self and defeat father time for one more year, he'll be just what the doctor ordered, and perhaps the Nationals' go-to lefty out of the bullpen.

I want to reiterate that this roster does not have enough depth, and not all of the players discussed here ideally belong on a big league roster. Even with the knowledge that Washignton isn’t very interested in spending money right now, it wouldn’t be a shock if they signed someone before the season starts.

With that said, I don’t expect anyone the club currently controls that wasn’t named here to crack the initial big league staff – unless it’s as a replacement for an injured pitcher.

Maybe Sean Doolittle, the newly-hired Pitching Strategist, can help turn this unit into more than we all expect.