The Washington Nationals 2023 starting rotation

Photo of Cade Cavalli in Triple-A Rochester  (Stephen Lasnick for TalkNats)

The 2023 Washington Nationals starting rotation will look different from the previous season’s version with the addition of free agent Trevor Williams who will join incumbents Patrick Corbin and Josiah Gray in the rotation. The other two spots will get more clarity after general manager Mike Rizzo is finished making offseason acquisitions. You can almost expect the left-handed MacKenzie Gore and Nats’ top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli as pieces of the puzzle.

It was Gore who was the third pick in 2017 draft, and he was a key piece of the Juan Soto trade with the San Diego Padres. Gore will turn 24 during Spring Training, and most feel he is a lock for the rotation if he is healthy. In July, he went on the 15-day IL with left elbow inflammation, and the kid from nearby Whiteville, North Carolina will have to wait for his Nats’ debut for 2023.

Everything started as aces for Gore through his first nine big league starts with a 1.50 ERA until he pitched against Colorado and got lit up in back-to-back starts against the Rockies. Fortunately, he cruised past the Phillies in his next start giving up no runs in that outing to get his confidence back. Weeks later he got lit up against the Giants, but then he was put in the bullpen for two appearances before the elbow injury. Gore finished with a 4.11 ERA but take out those 3 blowup starts from his 16 appearances and the young lefty had a 1.94 ERA. Sure, a few too many walks that felt like watching a re-run of a Gio Gonzalez start, but he controlled the game and limited runs. Gore throws a 4-pitch mix of 4-seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup, and hopefully this is just the beginning of what he can be.

One lock for the rotation is Patrick Corbin. The veteran lefty starter improved to a 2.84 ERA in six starts from August 21 to September 20 to give some hope that he could pitch well with competent fielding. Let’s face it, the Nats defense was ranked last until mid-August when CJ Abrams took over at shortstop. While Corbin’s final start of 2022 was a stinker, there was a whole lot of ugly in there for the first four months of his season, especially when you consider his final ERA was 6.31. But Corbin’s FIP was 4.84 which seemed to be much more of what Corbin can be with competent defense behind him, and of course the Nats want more from the pitcher they are paying $23.33 million a year to be an ace.

To watch Gray (5.02 ERA) come into Spring Training just 10 months ago with the same repertoire as we saw in 2021 was disappointing. In the last offseason, we wrote that Gray needed a sinker and had to ditch the 4-seamer that was the cause of his horrific 2.3 HR/9 rate. Finally, late in the season Gray added a sinker but continued to throw that 4-seamer.

Gray’s pitch chart illustrates how he just does not locate that 4-seam fastball, and the only run he gave up in his final start of the season was a home run off of the 4-seamer, but the chart shows that he was probably luckier than good with those red dots over the center of the plate. The sinker was working for him, so why throw the 4-seamer? That’s a coaching issue. But there finally is some progress on Gray, and he finished the season with some hope that he can be the ace that the Nats traded for in 2021.

On Cavalli, he made his Nats’ debut this year and was one and done as he injured himself with shoulder inflammation, and was shutdown for the rest of the season. He was the Nats’ first round pick in 2020, and is still in a work-in-progress. His 3.71 ERA in Triple-A showed some real promise, but it wasn’t pretty to start his 2022 campaign as he had a 7.62 ERA on May 17. Then the kid from Oklahoma got in a groove and went the next three months to become one of the best pitchers in the Minors with a 2.10 ERA over his final 68 2/3 innings.

While Cavalli’s debut finished on a sour note, there is a lot of potential there. We will see if Cavalli makes the Opening Day roster in 2023. There has been a lot of speculation that Cavalli will make the Nats’ roster out of Spring Training, but if Rizzo acquires one more starter, that will be a tough one as he would be in competition with Gore for the final spot in the rotation. Whatever happens, you can expect Cavalli to get some starts in 2023 as teams always need more than five starting pitchers.

The newly acquired Williams has 118 career starts and a career starter’s ERA of 4.33, and turned in a 4.19 when he started for the Mets in 2022. The Mets used him as a spot starter, and mostly as a hybrid reliever in the bullpen. While his number don’t translate to the stuff of aces, he will be an improvement over most of the starters that the Nats sent out for the 2022 season.

Williams throws a starter’s repertoire of five pitches. His main pitch is the 4-seam fastball that he throws 52 percent of the time. His remaining four pitches he throws almost equally at 12 percent each with his slider as his main swing & miss pitch, and his sinker as his best putaway pitch. He has the batter thinking 4-seamer and induces groundball outs with the sinker. Nothing overpowering as his fastball hovers around 90 mph. He throws a changeup and curveball also just to keep the batters off-balance. This year Williams got his BB/9 to the lowest of his career that helped contribute to a 1.227 WHIP and believe or not his starter’s WHIP was actually better than his reliever’s WHIP.

In this video clip from yesterday’s news conference with Williams, he talks about his repertoire, and the fact that Statcast doesn’t always identify his breaking balls properly between slider and curveball.

“Working on different pitches this offseason right now, to get left-handed hitters out, so it’s always trying to tinker and mess with and see what works best,” Williams said.

How great is it to hear that a veteran pitcher is trying to improve his repertoire in the offseason, and especially from a pitcher who already has five pitches in his arsenal. Did a little bit of Max Scherzer rub off on Williams when they were teammates with the Mets this past season?

A quick part of how much Williams has enjoyed Washington, D.C. in the past and where he plans on living. We wrote over the weekend that Williams has spent time at the Smithsonian and was an American history major at Arizona State University before being drafted in the second round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Marlins.

The Nats just acquired starting pitcher Thad Ward in the Rule-5 draft, and it looks like he will be a swing man on the roster working out of the bullpen in hybrid roles, and making some spot starts. Earlier in the offseason, the Nats non-tendered Erick Fedde, and Anibal Sanchez became a free agent. Then there is the unknown with Stephen Strasburg. It is very possible that Stras begins the season on the 60-day IL as he recovers from the side effects due to his thoracic outlet surgery. The team still has Paolo Espino as a possibility for a spot starter as well as Cory Abbott, Joan Adon, Jackson Tetreault and Evan Lee, as they all made at least one start for the Nats in 2022, and as of now are still under team control.

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