Weak links further exposed for the Nats

The Washington Nationals cannot start a serious conversation about winning in 2024 unless they address the 1,000 pound elephant in the room with the 3 pitchers at the back of this rotation. Current ERA’s are awful if we can be truthful. Joan Adon 6.00 (starter’s ERA only), Patrick Corbin 5.23, Trevor Williams 5.21. Those don’t even work in softball.

The Washington Nationals starters have a combined ERA of 11.65 in the month of September. Sure, small sample size for this month, but these issues have been percolating for a while now. This team will go nowhere if the starting pitching doesn’t do their job. The Nats have always been built around starting pitching.

In May, the Nats had a top-15 starting rotation by ERA, but now they are the 6th worst at a combined 4.86 team mark. Take it a step forward and add in the horrendous bullpen ERA, and the Nats pitching staff is at 4.98 ERA for 4th worst in MLB. How has this happened again?

Sometimes the simplest answer to a question comes down to a straightforward honest response, even if it feels negative. The issue starts with the quality of the players. But maybe coaching has to share in some of the blame, and the front office for assembling a poor roster.

“Starting pitching is the driver to me . . . We’ve built our [rosters] based on having a guy in the middle of the diamond who gives us a chance to win every day.”

— General Manager Mike Rizzo said after the 2018 season

Josiah Gray went from the team’s All-Star selection to a real question mark on the future of this team. What was so promising with Gray turned into the worst fears that his old self returned with the walks and home runs given up. FIP measures what analysts believe a pitcher can control. ERA depends on controlling runs and much of that is dependent on defense and BABIP luck. Strikeouts are certainly the neutralizer. FIP kept pointing to Gray was pitching 1.5 runs better than his ERA as a warning sign of danger ahead back in June.

Since June 14, Gray’s ERA has almost been identical to his FIP at a 5.30 ERA to 5.50 FIP in that timeframe. Batters had a .373 OBP against Gray with an .825 OPS. At the end of May, Gray was pitching to an incredible 2.77 ERA. Maybe the workload got to Gray. He was asked from his second start of the season to pitch to 102 pitches and followed that up with a 103 pitch performance. After his fourth start of going over 100 pitches is when we saw Gray’s mechanics falter with arm-side control issues. He walked six batters in just 5.0 innings on May 21, and you could just see that Gray has never been the same since.

But Gray has been a shining star next to Adon, Corbin, and Williams. That trio is averaging near a 5.40 ERA this season. That won’t cut it. When general manager Mike Rizzo and owner Mark Lerner talk about winning, it would be an insult to the fanbase if they trot out any of that trio in the starting rotation of this team. Corbin and Williams will be in their final year on the Nats in 2024, but maybe both should work out of the bullpen or just cut the chord with them.

Obviously Gray will stay in the 2024 starting rotation, and MacKenzie Gore will also. Jake Irvin has quietly been improving in the second half of the season, and just needs to add a meaningful circle change to his repertoire for some vertical movement and add another fastball with movement to take that next step. Gore has the best FIP in the starting rotation at 4.66, and he has been showing improvement with his changeup and could use a cutter in his repertoire. Hopefully he realizes that.

The clear and present danger here is doing nothing, and believing that progress will cure the ills. No, this starting pitching staff and bullpen need two key pieces added in this offseason. That will take additional payroll and keen eye on that talent available out there. This is where a general manager and ownership must come together to make smart decisions for the future of this team.

“We’re all in. … Just like we did the last time with Werth [in free agency], at the right time, we will be back in the free agent market again. … Trust me, nobody wants to win more than me.”

— owner Mark Lerner said before the season started

Now it is time to put your money where you mouth is. This team will have some tough decisions to make on cutting some veteran players, and addition by subtraction has to be a key offseason strategy to move forward. If this team does nothing more than bring in a true No.1 pitcher for this staff and a solid bullpen arm, that by itself is a good start towards the future of this team. Doing nothing is not acceptable.

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