Welcome to the first of two MattsBats.com Nationals season previews! Today, I will focus on the Nats’ pitchers.
To put it mildly, the staff faced a major setback in 2021. After pitching from Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Daniel Hudson quite possibly won them the 2019 World Series, they couldn’t get it together during the shortened 2020 season or early in 2021. As a result, there were major shakeups. Scherzer, the face of the pitching corps and possibly the team for a few years, traded to the Dodgers. Hudson to San Diego. Free agent adds Brad Hand to Toronto and Jon Lester to St. Louis, respectively. Strasburg to the long-term injured list. Corbin mired in consistent inconsistency. The guard was changed. Guys like Paolo Espino and Erick Fedde found themselves in regular starting positions for the first time in their careers. Josiah Gray, one of the main chips in the Scherzer trade, became a mainstay in the rotation for the rest of the year. In the bullpen, Kyle Finnegan took over closing duties. Anyone from journeymen like Javy Guerra to farmhands like Gabe Klobotsis to young fireballers like Mason Thompson rounded out the ‘pen. The pitching was bad last year, and it would take a miracle for it to get markedly better this year.
The Nats focused their free agent acquisitions at the plate this winter, hoping to continue their surprising success on the offensive side of the ball from the second half of last season. There will be some familiar faces, but new ones too. Firstly, how might the starting rotation look on Opening Day?
After the departure of Max Scherzer at the 2021 trade deadline, the Nats are left without a consistent, healthy ace. Starting pitching was the Nats’ shakiest position last season, and this inconsistency, unfortunately, is bound to continue into 2022. Three names are certain to factor into the rotation for the entire year, injuries ignored.
- Leading the pack is Stephen Strasburg (1-2, 4.57 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 8.7 K/9 in 5 starts), who missed most of the ‘21 season with thoracic outlet syndrome. Strasburg desperately needs a rebound season after dealing with injuries for most of the past two years. If Strasburg is on his game, he will be dangerous. If he suffers another setback this season, his 7-year, $245 million contract looks worse and worse each day. Unfortunately, he won’t be ready for Opening Day, so time will tell which version of Stephen Strasburg we’ll get this year.
- Speaking of those who need a bounceback season, let’s talk about Patrick Corbin (9-16, 5.82 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 7.5 K/9 in 31 starts). He was awful last season. That’s not even a subjective statement—Corbin led the league in losses, earned runs, and home runs allowed last year. As he was quite possibly the reason why the Nats’ pitching was so dominant in the 2019 postseason, this setback was surprising. Any sign of improvement from an awful 2021 is welcome, but Corbin’s situation (specifically his bloated contract) is one of the factors holding the Nats back this year.
- On a more optimistic note, Josiah Gray (2-2, 5.31 ERA, 1.340 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 in 12 starts) is poised to have a strong sophomore season. As he builds his confidence throughout the season, Gray should solidify himself in the Nats’ rotation for years to come. He has a lot of potential to realize, being one of the headliners of the Scherzer/Turner trade this past season.
Strasburg, Corbin and Gray are probably the only locks for the rotation. From there, it’s more of a revolving door.
- Joe Ross (5-9, 4.17 ERA, 1.222 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 in 19 starts) solidified himself as a fourth or fifth starter last year. One problem – he’s out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. Crap. Moving on…
- Erick Fedde (7-9, 5.47 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 8.6 K/9 in 27 starts) has underwhelmed in his MLB career so far. He had every opportunity to realize his full potential last year, and even as he showed signs of first-round pick prowess at certain points, he was inconsistent throughout the season. In a spring start against a Cardinals lineup mixed with MLB regulars and prospects, Fedde displayed beautiful movement on his pitches but struggled with command. He’s very much in play for a rotation spot this year.
- Josh Rogers (2-2, 3.28 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 5.6 K/9 in 6 starts) started the year recovering from Tommy John surgery in the Orioles’ system. He finished as a regular in the Nats’ rotation. After earning a spot start in a September doubleheader, Rogers impressed down the stretch, and quickly became a fan favorite with his fun antics on the field. I like Rogers over Fedde, at least at the beginning of the year. I would like to have another lefty in the rotation other than Corbin, and I think Rogers deserves a shot to establish himself as a fixture in the bottom half of a rotation for the rest of the year. Rogers started the first game of Spring Training and gave up one run in two innings of work against the Marlins’ starters, striking out two.
- Was Paolo Espino (5-5, 4.27 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.55 K/9 in 19 starts) the Nats’ most consistent pitcher last season? He gave you five innings of two or three-run ball every fifth night, and always kept the Nats in the game. Espino was not expected to be a starter at any point of the first half until he suddenly found himself as the team’s third starter come August. While I think he would be more effective as a reliever in a perfect world, Espino will almost surely start the year in the Nats’ rotation.
- Hey, Aníbal Sánchez (4-5, 6.62 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 7.3 K/9 in 11 starts in 2020) is back on a minor league deal! To be completely honest, I was not a fan of this signing when I heard the news. Sánchez, a 38-year old coming off semi-retirement, adds nothing to the rotation that should be embracing young arms instead of a 2019 reunion tour. He pitched very well against the Astros’ minor league lineup in a Spring game, but I would want to see him face MLB hitters before declaring Sánchez “back” officially.
- On the contrary, I really like the Aaron Sanchez (1-1, 3.06 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 6.6 K/9 in 7 starts w/ San Francisco) signing. Remember: Sanchez was an All-Star with the Blue Jays back in 2016. And yeah, he hasn’t been great the last couple of years, but Sanchez is still just 29 and might have something left in the tank. Like Aníbal (the two Sanchezes are not related), he won’t blow anyone away with his velocity, but beats you with command. I think he has an outside chance at making the big league squad out of camp, but he would have to out-perform Erick Fedde to do so. He’s also on a minor league deal, but has a major-league deal with incentives in place should he make the team. I would think that Aníbal has a better chance to make the club than Aaron.
- Joan Adon (0-0, 3.38 ERA, 1.69 WHIP, 15.19 K/9 in 1 start) pitched the last game of the season and impressed, delivering five innings while only giving up two runs. Adon is evidently MLB-ready, but might not be Mike Rizzo’s first choice out of Spring Training given his lack of experience. He should make multiple more appearances for the Nats before year’s end, but Fedde, Espino, or a Sanchez would be a safer bet for the Opening Day roster.
The next group of starting pitchers are unlikely to make the team out of camp, but are reasonable bets to make spot starts or finish the year with the Nats.
- The Nats’ top prospect, Cade Cavalli, is knocking on the doorstep of the big leagues after a meteoric rise through the minor leagues in 2021. Last year’s MiLB strikeout king started the year with High-A Wilmington and ended his season with the AAA Rochester Red Wings, dominating in Wilmington and AA Harrisburg but hitting a skid in Rochester. Cavalli will need some more seasoning in the minors this year, but it is not an unreasonable possibility that Cavalli makes it to Washington by season’s end. Yes, yes, I was excited to see Cavalli pitch three scoreless with six K’s against the Astros, but that lineup was not necessarily the one they put out in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series.
- Gerardo Carrillo, acquired in the Scherzer-Turner trade, will start the year with Harrisburg or Rochester but could fit into the rotation with a strong performance in the season’s early months. With Carrillo, questions exist about his future as a starter, so it’s possible that the Nats try him in a bullpen role this year. Carrillo is on the 40-man roster.
On a spot start basis (think of Sean Nolin’s role from last year), these guys could find themselves in Washington.
- Nats fans know Jefry Rodriguez well—he’s bounced between the MLB and AAA for the last few years.
- Ben Braymer also made his big league debut in 2020, and was very solid in three appearances with Washington.
- Logan Verrett reminds me a lot of Nolin, as he’s passed through many minor league systems since making his last big league stint with the O’s back in 2017.
- Erasmo Ramirez has struggled through Spring Training but has tons of experience in the MLB.
As it stands right now, the Opening Day rotation should consist of Patrick Corbin, Josiah Gray, Paolo Espino, Erick Fedde, and Josh Rogers. The “last guy out” in this situation is Aníbal Sánchez.
Now on to the bullpen, which (somehow) has more unanswered questions than the rotation heading in to 2022.
The Nats’ bullpen has never been good, and it doesn’t look like this year is going to be any different. There could be some bright spots, though.
- Tanner Rainey (1-3, 3 saves, 7.50 ERA, 1.71 WHIP in 31.2 IP) is probably this team’s closer. Yeah. Not great. But he’s better than the stats might indicate. Rainey was lights-out down the stretch, including a string of five innings between AAA and the MLB where he struck out 15 consecutive batters. He was excellent in 2020, so we know Rainey has the potential to be great. Time for him to realize it.
- Will Harris (0-1, 0 saves, 9.00 ERA, 1.67 WHIP in 6 IP) suffered the same injury as Stephen Strasburg and missed a similar amount of time as the team’s ace. Harris is still just a few years removed from a masterful 2019 season with the Astros, which is why the Nats gave him such a lucrative contract in the 2020 offseason. In his age-37 season, he needs to make Mike Rizzo’s investment worth it. If not, he goes down as one of the free-agent failures of the Rizzo years. Who knows if Harris will be ready for Opening Day—we have heard very little about his rehab this Spring. He hasn’t pitched yet, which puts his presence on the Opening Day roster in serious jeopardy.
- Man, you gotta feel bad for Kyle Finnegan (5-9, 11 saves, 3.55 ERA, 1.49 WHIP in 66 IP). Before 2020, he bounced around the Athletics’ minor league system. In the shortened 2020 season, he established himself as a solid reliever in Washington. But after the trade deadline fire sale in which Daniel Hudson and Brad Hand were shipped to San Diego and Toronto, respectively, Finnegan found himself as the Nats’ closer with just a year and a half of league experience on his belt. He didn’t necessarily blow anyone away, but was far and away the most consistent reliever on that Washington ballclub. He will thrive in a lower-stakes, setup role in 2022.
- Sean Doolittle (3-1, 1 save, 4.53 ERA, 1.47 WHIP in 49.2 IP w/ Cincinnati and Seattle) IS BACK. Yes, I know I literally just criticized the Aníbal Sánchez signing for being a 2019 nostalgia signing. This feels like one too, but Doo is one of the most beloved and likeable players in team history, and a lot of Nats fans are excited to see him back on the roster after a brief hiatus in 2021. His best days may be behind him, but Rizzo trusted him enough to get Doolittle on a major league deal. I’m very excited personally—we’ll see if he can recreate some of the magic he brought to this team in 2018 and 2019.
- The Nats’ first post-lockout signing was Steve Cishek (0-2, 0 saves, 3.42 ERA, 1.49 WHIP in 68.1 IP w/ Angels), the veteran sidewinder journeyman who will make the Nats his eighth team in his career. I see nothing more than a set-up role out of Cishek, who has never accumulated too many saves in his long career. He’ll team up with Kyle Finnegan to make a solid 7th inning-8th inning combination in the back end of the ‘pen.
- Speaking of the Hudson trade, Mason Thompson (1-3, 0 saves, 4.15 ERA, 1.94 WHIP in 21.2 IP) is set for a sophomore breakthrough. He showed flashes of potential in his short time with the Nats last year, but was plagued by control issues—averaging a BB/9 of almost 6. If (and when) Thompson fixes his control, something he’ll get better at with experience, he could be an interesting choice for Davey Martinez.
- Another second-year reliever with interesting potential is Patrick Murphy (0-2, 0 saves, 5.30 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in 18.2 IP), who the Nats claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays in August. Again, Murphy’s stats don’t wow the naked eye, but he looked solid at times and could be an interesting long relief option. There’s also a decent shot Murphy makes it into the big-picture conversation with a solid year, at a relatively young 26 years old.
The rest of the bullpen is a hodge-podge of some familiar faces, journeymen, and guys that will get a shot at the bigs for the first time.
- The Víctor Arano signing was met with very little fanfare, and to be honest, that’s expected. The righty hasn’t been on a Major League ballclub since 2019, when he pitched four innings for the Phillies. After that, he ended up having a very solid season with the Braves’ AAA affiliate in 2021 and now finds himself in big league camp with the Nats this spring. Arano is by no means expected to make this team. But in a year with a very shaky bullpen infrastructure, why not turn to the young-ish righty who hasn’t posted an ERA higher than 3.86 in his MLB career?
- Sam Clay (0-5, 0 saves, 5.60 ERA, 1.71 WHIP in 45 IP) is left-handed. That’s quite possibly the only explanation for why Davey Martinez relied on him so heavily last year, and unfortunately, he did not live up to the expectations placed on him. Is he still serviceable? Maybe. Are there better lefty relievers in the organization? Probably. Will Clay make the Opening Day roster? Hopefully not, but Davey likes the guys he likes. The Sam Clay Experience is an eternal way of life.
- Well here’s a flashback! Tyler Clippard (1-1, 6 saves, 3.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP in 25.1 IP) is back. Yes, the same Tyler Clippard who was a mainstay in the Nats bullpen for the first part of the 2010s. And while signing a 37-year old veteran who has played for nine teams in seven years rarely works out, Clippard has been really good the past few years, keeping his ERA under 4 while avoiding injury. Maybe the Nats could get something out of him at the Trade Deadline?
- The Nats bolstered their left-handed relief depth by signing Jace Fry (0-1, 0 saves, 10.80 ERA, 2.4 WHIP in 6.2 IP w/ White Sox) on a minor league deal. Yes, the stats look bad, but Fry kept an ERA under 3 in 40 minor league innings last year and had a completely serviceable run with the Southsiders over the past few years. I don’t expect much out of Fry, but we could see him at some point this year.
- The Nats essentially swapped relievers after losing Jhon Romero off waivers, claiming Hunter Harvey (0-0, 0 saves, 4.15 ERA, 1.27 WHIP in 8.2 IP w/ Baltimore) on the waiver wire from the Giants. Harvey is a former Orioles farmhand who was a 2013 first round pick, but struggled mightily with injury problems. He hasn’t necessarily struggled on the mound at the MLB level, but needs a fully healthy season. The righty could make an impact in the Nats’ bullpen if he’s on his game, while also adding potential starting depth.
- Remember the Gabe Klobotsis (0-1, 0 saves, 5.56 ERA, 1.59 WHIP in 11.1 IP) week? He left behind a memorable nickname, an elite stache, and a lot to be desired on the mound. Probably not an Opening Day roster-caliber name, but he’s destined to find his way back to the bigs this year. Klobo!
- Was Andres Machado (1-2, 0 saves, 3.53 ERA, 1.26 WHIP in 35.2 IP) really good last year, or was the bar really that low? Machado’s statline indicates the former, serving as the second-most reliable reliever on the ballclub after Finnegan. He’ll probably be in the ‘pen this season.
- In the hectic days right before the lockout, the Nats claimed Francisco Pérez (0-0, 0 saves, 4.05 ERA, 1.35 WHIP in 6.2 IP w/ Cleveland) off waivers from the Guardians, so you might not recognize his name. He lit up the minors last year, sporting an ERA under 2 that eventually led to his brief callup to Cleveland. Aside from his downright disgusting slider, what is Pérez’s greatest asset? You guessed it, he’s a lefty. That alone inserts himself into serious consideration for the roster out of camp.
- Ladies and gentlemen, we have another Seth Romero dilemma. The talented (lefty!) pitching prospect who was our first round pick just five short years ago has gotten into more off-the-field issues, having been recently charged with a DWI in Texas. Look, there’s no denying that Romero is probably in consideration for a spot on the team. Yet in an organization with a notoriously short leash for off-the-field issues (see: Starlin Castro and whatever the hell happened with Jeremy Jeffress), Romero could face serious professional discipline for the DWI, jeopardizing his spot on the depth chart.
- Still waiting for a solid year from Austin Voth (4-1, 0 saves, 5.34 ERA, 1.48 WHIP in 57.1 IP). There are still things to like here: he had a more-than-okay start to last year, and has the ability to pitch long relief or even spot start. The problem is that Voth is consistent—consistent at giving up runs in key situations. He needs a reputation-saving year; if not, he’ll be gone sooner rather than later.
- A minor league signing during the lockout, Jordan Weems had a surprisingly good Spring. He’s bounced around the league the past few years, making Major League appearances with the A’s and D-Backs after first cracking the league in 2020. Weems should probably find himself in Washington at some point this year if his success from the Spring translates to success in Rochester.
Off of the 40-man roster, look out for Luis Avilán (L), Alberto Baldonado (L), Carl Edwards Jr., Brian Gonzalez, Ramon Santos, Jefry Rodriguez, and Jordan Weems for odd appearances. The guys the Nats picked up in the minor league Rule 5 Draft (Matt Brill, Dakody Clemmer, and Curtis Taylor) are set to begin the year in Rochester, though Clemmer is the most big league ready of the bunch. Don’t count out a bullpen job for Paolo Espino, like I mentioned before. And if Matt Cronin has a good start to the year, I definitely see him making an impact in the Nats’ bullpen down the stretch.
As it stands right now, the bullpen could consist of Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, Sean Doolittle, Steve Cishek, Mason Thompson, Patrick Murphy, Andres Machado, Francisco Pérez, Austin Voth, and either Hunter Harvey, Víctor Arano, or Jace Fry, depending on who has the best Spring Training.