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Nationals Continue Search for Serviceable Starting Pitching

It’s no mystery that the Nationals, who have struggled in many areas throughout 2022, have lacked the quality starting rotation that often carried them from 2012-19.

Lately, however, the situation has snowballed with no obvious solution in sight.

Washington has collectively tossed one quality start (six innings with three or fewer earned runs allowed) since the All-Star break. Patrick Corbin has allowed six runs without getting out of the first inning in two of his last three starts, and the rest of the rotation has also tossed bad outings than good ones since the break.

We all knew that the beginning of the post-Juan Soto era would probably be ugly, but that had more to do with losing two very solid – if not elite – hitters than pitching woes.

Skies Are Looking Gray

Part of the problem – although not the biggest aspect – is that Josiah Gray hasn’t taken the next step in his development. Although his ERA has dropped by half a run relative to last year, it’s still alarmingly close to 5.00 – and it’s hovered near 7.00 since the beginning of July. Aside from his strikeouts per nine innings (which sit at a strong 10.2), none of his other season-long metrics have changed in a meaningful way.

We’ve continued to see flashes from the 24-year-old starter, but consistency is very much still lacking. Some of that is tied to an objectively underwhelming group of pitching coaches and developmental staff. Nonetheless, the organization was certainly hoping for better performance from Gray by now. That’s not to say he can’t improve in the future, but he’s not where the team wants him to be yet.

Fedde Taken Off The Mound

There’s an argument that Erick Fedde has been the Nationals’ most consistent starting pitching. That’s a startling reality, but it underscores his importance to the rotation.

Fedde was placed on the 15-day IL on July 30 with right shoulder inflammation. He’s scheduled for a rehab start at Triple-A Rochester on Wednesday, and the expectation is that he may be activated by the Nationals for his following outing.

With Fedde sidelined, however, the rest of the staff has been asked to slide up in the pecking order, and the results have been shaky at best.

Corbin’s Crumble Has Reached A Climax

As stated previously, two of Corbin’s three most recent starts have lasted less than an inning. As a result, his last start was skipped. Instead, he threw a bullpen session on Saturday, which reportedly went “exceptionally well.”

It’s unclear what that means, on multiple fronts. First of all, what does performing “exceptionally well” in such a controlled setting even mean? Second, does it mean his return to the mound is imminent? Lastly, will this result in him staying in the rotation instead of moving to the bullpen, which had been suggested as an option?

My greatest criticism related to Corbin has nothing to do with him individually. While it’s encouraging that the Nationals took him aside to analyze him more deeply and come up with a group solution for how to fix him, this needed to happen a long time ago. After all, he’s been among the worst starters across the league in each of the last three seasons. 

Abbott Is Not An Answer

The 26-year-old Cory Abbott threw five scoreless innings almost two weeks ago, in his first start of the season at the major league level. That got people excited, but a deeper look at his recent track record uncovered that this was almost certainly a fluke.

In Abbott’s last two starts, he’s surrendered 10 runs in fewer than eight innings. With Fedde on the mend and Corbin potentially returning in a few days, Abbott’s fate may be sealed.

The Elder Statesmen Haven’t Succeeded

Neither Paolo Espino nor Anibal Sanchez have gone six innings in a game all season. They’ve combined for a 5.95 ERA in 18 starts at the big league level this year.

They’re obviously nothing more than stopgaps in the rotation, but the idea that they’re both needed is troubling, and the issue compounds itself considering how bad the rest of the staff has also been.

How Does This Get Fixed?

The easy answer is pitchers need to pitch better. For some members of the staff, that is true; they’ll need to be relied on for the rest of the season and beyond. However, there are two potential bright spots.

Neither of them are Cole Henry, who has been on Rochester’s IL since June 24, nor Joan Adon’s, whose ERA through three Triple-A starts sits at 7.20.

Option No. 1 is MacKenie Gore, who was one of the players acquired from the Padres. On the downside, he is currently injured, and his overall status for the rest of this season is uncertain. Then again, he reportedly threw a baseball from 75 feet 25 times this weekend. That’s far from throwing from the mound in a competitive situation, but it’s a step in the right direction for the former No. 3 overall draft pick.

Perhaps a more imminent possibility is Cade Cavalli. On Saturday, Cavalli allowed only three hits over seven innings while striking out 11 batters for Rochester. In his last 31 innings, he’s recorded a 1.42 ERA.

With Cavalli’s next scheduled day to throw aligning with a series in San Diego, saving him for the following turn in the rotation might be the smarter option. Still, it seems likely that he’ll arrive in Washington soon. Any game from August 26-28 against the Reds or August 30-September 1 vs. the Athletics – all of which are at home against teams with season-long win percentages below .400 – seems like a very serious possibility.

How It Looks Down The Stretch

By the end of this month, I’m expecting to see a starting staff of Gray, Fedde, Corbin, Espino – who has been marginally better than Sanchez – and Cavalli. If Gore is ready to go by the end of the year, that’s a bonus.

That’s an improvement, but it’s still not likely to be a particularly competitive rotation right away. I’d consider the last month or two of the season to be an audition for all five of them (okay, maybe not for Gray), with at least one of them likely to be squeezed out of the rotation by Opening Day 2023 – and that’s taking into account my pessimism about Stephen Strasburg’s availability by then.

Some Odds and Ends

It sounds as if talks surrounding the franchise’s impending ownership change have ramped up. There’s no clear leader in the chase yet, but it certainly adds to the intrigue regarding the team’s future.

Shortstop Luis Garcia, who had been sidelined for the past two games with a groin injury, has been placed on the IL. In his place, the Nationals have recalled fellow young shortstop C.J. Abrams, another very intriguing player they added in the Juan Soto trade. Abrams entered this season as a consensus top 10 prospect league-wide and was batting .290 with four stolen bases through eight games in Triple-A prior to the promotion. At 21 years old, he’ll immediately become one of the most enjoyable players to watch for the Nationals.

Thirty-year-old journeyman Joey Meneses deserves a shout-out. In his first 10 major league games, he’s batting .400 with five home runs. He might not be a long-term piece on this roster, but he’s been Washington’s most productive hitter since earning the call-up.

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Wednesday, 05 October 2022

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