Grading the 2023 Washington Nationals: pitching edition

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Thaddeus Ward lasted the full season on the roster as a Rule 5 draft pick, but how did he perform? (Photo by Sol Tucker for

The season is over, and the report card is due for the players who appeared in 2023 for the Washington Nationals.

Grades here are presented relative to what I’ll call “reasonable expectations”. For instance, no one expected Amos Willingham to become the Nats’ ninth-inning guy when he was called up; but did he do reasonably well for himself, relative to what the Nats brought him up to do? What about Robert Garcia, who was claimed off waivers? Jackson Rutledge, who was called up to plug a rotation hole late in the season?

While these grades are conducted on a curve, all assume the baseline expectation for a player was that they succeed in the role to which they were assigned — whether that of an ace, a back-end starter, a long man, a late-inning reliever, or anything in between. A passing grade (C range or higher) means someone at least did enough to justify keeping him around, although a C might not augur well for a player in 2024 or beyond. Grades in the A range are assigned sparingly, showing where a player exceeded reasonable expectations and contributed in a strongly positive way. B’s, as you would thus expect, fall somewhere in the middle. And failing grades (D’s and F’s) pretty well speak for themselves.

Cory Abbott — D

Abbott entered 2023 with an outside chance to be the #5 starter, especially after Cade Cavalli went down midway through spring training with a torn UCL. Instead, he didn’t make a single start for the Nats all season, and he only appeared in 22 games out of the bullpen, spending the rest of the year at Triple-A Rochester. The results were unmemorable. Abbott avoids a worse grade here only because he did manage to soak up some innings, especially down the stretch.

Joan Adon — C-

Adon’s star has faded since an impressive late-2021 major league debut; he was one of the worst pitchers in MLB last year, and he wasn’t particularly good when called upon this year, either. The thing with Adon is his splits: He posted a 2.10 ERA with a .571 OPS against in the first three innings, then he got absolutely murdered in the middle innings with a ghastly 14.58 ERA and a 1.230 OPS against. Basically, to start out the game, Adon rendered the average hitter about as potent as 2021 Carter Kieboom, then they morphed into 2003 Barry Bonds as Adon’s pitch count mounted. Adon did carry no-hitters past the fifth inning twice, somehow, this season, and there’s enough here to think maybe he would be effective in relief. But starting isn’t working for Adon, and it’s a reasonable question whether he did enough this year to be in the roster picture for 2024.

Anthony Banda — F

Banda was added to the roster out of spring training as a non-roster invitee. He proceeded to pitch just seven innings in ten games, getting whomped nearly every time out before the Nats designated him for assignment and outrighted him to the minors, where he worked as a swingman with similarly unimpressive results. The real bad thing about Banda is he failed spectacularly at the one thing the Nats signed him to do: Against left-handed batters, the left-handed Banda allowed a 1.167 OPS.

Patrick Corbin — B-

Corbin was the worst pitcher in MLB in 2021 and 2022. This year, he was merely bad, actually finishing with (very slightly) positive rWAR for the first time since 2020. Corbin pitched 180 innings, and while his 5.20 ERA is hardly an impressive mark, he took the ball 32 times and avoided the spectacular one- or two-inning flameouts that pockmarked his dreadful 2022 campaign. No, Corbin wasn’t good in 2023, and Corbin starts weren’t exactly appointment viewing — but he was reliable and (mostly) serviceable, and that’s what the Nats needed him to be.

Carl Edwards Jr. — C+

Edwards, a staple at the back of the bullpen in 2022, endured a frustrating, injury-riddled season and ultimately ended the year on the 60-day injured list. Whatever ailed Edwards, he wasn’t the same pitcher in 2023 as he was the year prior; while he was usable, he just wasn’t consistent enough for Davey Martinez to trust him in high-leverage spots.

Paolo Espino — F

Espino was a stalwart, and then this year, the magic ran out. Although he only appeared in three games with the major league team, Espino was so horrendous — as evinced by his 24.75 ERA — that he was jettisoned from the roster and never seemed to be seriously in play for another call-up, even as the Nats struggled with pitcher injuries toward the end of the season.

José A. Ferrer — C

Ferrer looked, at times, like he was a valuable homegrown bullpen piece — a rare commodity for the Nats, who haven’t produced such a player since Wander Suero. But the shine came off Ferrer considerably down the stretch. After he was unscored upon in his first three appearances, Ferrer endured some bumps but leveled out to enter August 19 with a 3.26 ERA. Starting with a lousy outing that day against the Phillies, Ferrer allowed twelve earned runs in eighteen games through the end of the season. The peripherals suggest Ferrer may have been a tad unlucky in that stretch, but it was a sour note on which to end the lefty’s debut season. He should get chances in 2024 but has decidedly fallen out of A bullpen consideration.

Kyle Finnegan — B-

Finnegan served as the Nats’ closer for most of the season, with mixed results. The good: Finnegan recorded 28 saves, the best mark by a Nationals pitcher since Sean Doolittle saved 29 in 2019. The bad: Finnegan also blew eight saves and had a 4.09 ERA in the ninth inning, which wasn’t much bettered by his 3.93 ERA in the eighth inning. The Nats need Finnegan to miss more bats to stick as a high-leverage reliever — he averaged under a strikeout per inning this year, which is perfectly fine for a middle reliever but underwhelming for a closer — and they need to see him at his best when it’s crunch time. In September and October, Finnegan allowed a 1.012 OPS against and recorded an 8.44 ERA, a late-season swoon that was ill-timed for him as the Nats consider their late-inning options in 2024, with the return of Tanner Rainey from Tommy John surgery and Hunter Harvey from a less serious injury. It could be Finnegan’s highest and best use is in the seventh inning, rather than the eighth or ninth.

Rico Garcia — INC

Garcia, a midseason pickup after he was DFA’d by the Oakland Athletics, pitched three forgettable innings and then got hurt. The Nats released and then re-signed him to a minors deal that presumably includes a 2024 guarantee, so he could pop up again in spring training, but he didn’t seem to do much with his opportunity in D.C. Ultimately, though, it’s unfair to grade him.

Robert Garcia — A

Garcia (the other one) was claimed off waivers from the Miami Marlins and quickly became one of Martinez’s go-to arms. Certainly the Nats’ most reliable lefty, he overcame a couple of notable blowups to record a 3.69 ERA over 24 games with Washington, backed by strong peripherals as well. His effectiveness against batters from both sides of the plate, his ability to pitch multiple innings, and his resilience in back-to-back outings made him a valuable asset for the Nats in his rookie season, and he finished the season very strong with a 1.99 ERA over his last eighteen games. He’s almost certainly cemented a roster spot to begin the 2024 season.

MacKenzie Gore — C+

Gore looked brilliant at times this season, but certainly less often than the Nats hoped to see. When Gore was good, he was very good indeed; he made seven of his 27 starts this year against American League teams, pitching to a svelte 2.15 ERA with generally strong peripherals. But at other times, Gore struggled. He was particularly ineffective within the division, winning just two of his combined nine starts against division rivals and getting bodied for a loss in all three of his appearances against the Phillies. Gore had showed some improvement in August before he was shut down in early September, so the Nats will hope he learned from his up-and-down 2023 campaign — his first full season in the big leagues, after all — and can mature into a solid mid-rotation starter. He did make 27 starts this year, which hardly qualifies him as an iron man but should be taken as encouraging after he came to the Nats in 2022 with significant health questions.

Josiah Gray — B-

Gray was the Nationals’ sole representative at the 2023 All-Star Game, although that was arguably more due to a logjam at Lane Thomas‘ position than anything else. Gray, like Gore, had a decidedly uneven season but managed to finish with an ERA below 4. Unfortunately, Gray’s peripherals suggest he and Gore were peas in a pod, both close to a 5 FIP with WHIPs over 1.4. And while Gray wasn’t nearly as homer-prone as he was in 2022, when he led the majors in home runs allowed, his command slipped badly; he averaged half a walk per inning in 2023. On the positive side of the ledger, Gray made 30 starts and pitched 159 innings; he was a reliable and valuable part of Martinez’s pitching staff and certainly locked in a 2024 rotation spot. Gray’s efforts to improve were also evident throughout the season, as he introduced several new pitches — not all of which he was still throwing by the end of the year — and even changed his windup, with positive results. That tinkering — with, it seems a safe bet, more to come in the offseason — will hopefully allow Gray to be the best version of himself going forward, and it definitely speaks well of his work ethic and adaptability.

Hobie Harris — D-

Harris looked really good early on in spring training, and even though he was pretty shaky later on in spring, he earned a spot in the Opening Day bullpen as a non-roster invitee. It’s probably too harsh to say that was a mistake on the Nats’ part, but regular-season Harris definitely looked more like the guy he was at the end of spring training than at the start. The rookie only appeared in sixteen games, being sent down after a particularly rough patch and then being yo-yoed between Triple-A and the major leagues a couple times later in the season. What we saw of him didn’t make us want to see more of him, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Perhaps the best that can be said for Harris is he didn’t factor into any decisions, as he will enter 2024 still looking for his first major league win and still dreading his first major league loss.

Hunter Harvey — A-

Harvey’s emergence as the Nats’ most reliable setup man and perhaps closer of the future was one of the cheeriest subplots of our team’s 2023 season. He mostly stayed healthy, only landing on the IL for a few weeks with an elbow injury that wasn’t nearly as serious as it could have been, and appeared in 57 games out of the bullpen. While early efforts to use him as the closer had some poor results, Martinez stuck with him until he went on the IL, and Harvey ended up with ten saves (albeit five blown saves to go with them). Harvey was the only Nats pitcher with a sub-1 WHIP this year, as well as the only with a sub-3 ERA (not counting Tanner Rainey with his one inning pitched). The only real blemish on Harvey’s 2023 record is his struggles as closer, but he seemed to mature into that role and has a serious chance at being the go-to guy for the ninth inning to begin the 2024 season.

Jake Irvin — B

Irvin wasn’t the Nats’ best or most reliable starter of 2023, but he was their most surprising starter. A mainstay of the bottom half of top-30 organizational prospect lists in recent years, Irvin got his chance with Chad Kuhl‘s early-season struggles and ended up making 24 starts, holding onto that rotation spot until being shut down in September. Irvin started his major league career with one decent start, one excellent start, and two awful starts after that, but the Nats had seen enough to stick with him, and he rewarded them with sixteen games of 3.74 ERA ball, averaging over five innings per start, from June through early September. His last two starts of the season got pretty ugly, but everyone knew the rookie would run out of gas sooner or later. Even at his best, Irvin wasn’t dominant per se, and his peripherals all season consistently suggested his results were better than his pitching. He’ll need to get his home run rate under control and improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio to be assured of making 24+ starts again in 2024. Overall, though, Irvin was a pleasant surprise for the Nats this year.

Chad Kuhl — F

Kuhl was, it’s fair to say, not completely focused on baseball this season. His wife, Amanda, was diagnosed with cancer in January, and the Kuhls were open both during and after Chad’s time with the Nats about their struggles in dealing with it. But from a cold, hard, statistical standpoint, Kuhl didn’t give the Nats what they needed and pitched his way out of the rotation and then off the roster. Kuhl pitched to a 9.41 ERA in April, and the Nats shut him down ostensibly to rest a minor injury, but probably more aptly to let him spend time with his family and have a mental reset. He returned in late May and pitched exclusively out of the bullpen, with mixed results, before the Nats finally cut him and his 8.45 ERA loose a month after that. Perhaps Kuhl could have solidified his spot if he’d shown the ability to pitch multiple innings and work back-to-back games out of the bullpen, as Robert Garcia did later in the season, but he couldn’t and didn’t. Nonetheless, Nats fans had and have a place in their heart for the Kuhls, and Chad’s efforts to contribute this year in spite of everything should be appreciated.

Joe La Sorsa — C+

La Sorsa did basically exactly what the Nats picked him up to do, no more and no less. Acquired off waivers from the Rays at midseason, La Sorsa proved effective at neutralizing lefties, holding them to a .544 OPS against across his 2023 campaign (including two games with Tampa Bay), and ineffective at doing anything else, allowing a .797 OPS against by righties and all three of the home runs he gave up. The Nats mostly used La Sorsa as an up-and-down piece in deference to José A. Ferrer and Robert Garcia, who ensconced themselves among Martinez’s go-to arms of the second half; he got into 23 games with Washington and posted adequate peripherals that suggest his 4.76 ERA was maybe a bit unlucky. It feels appropriate to give him a passing grade and not much more for his rookie season.

Andrés Machado — C

Machado, who has been bouncing between the Nats’ Triple-A and major league rosters for most of the decade to date, was effective down the stretch when employed as a fireman. But when he wasn’t cleaning up someone else’s messes, he was making his own. Astoundingly, Machado allowed just nine of the 37 runners he inherited in 44 games to score — while also giving up 29 earned runs of his own. Machado was also a very good fireman in 2022, but his overall numbers were significantly better that year; it’s frankly baffling that Machado was so sharp when he came in with runners on base and so dismal when the bases were empty (.919 OPS against!). Machado could stick around the roster until spring training but might find himself on the outside looking in when it comes time to set the 26-man list for Opening Day 2024.

Tanner Rainey — INC

Rainey made it back for the final series of the season and pitched a scoreless inning of relief. Encouraging to see the Nats’ onetime closer back from Tommy John surgery and still throwing with good velocity, but there’s not nearly enough to go on here to actually grade him.

Erasmo Ramírez — F

Ramírez was one of the Nats’ most valuable players, let alone relievers, in 2022. After coming up from the minor leagues, the eternally chipper, rubber-armed righty was worth a win and a half above replacement, by Baseball-Reference’s reckoning — very solid for a relief pitcher — and covered 86⅓ innings over 60 games, including two starts. Ramírez earned a major league contract for 2023. Unfortunately, he also earned his release. In 23 games, Ramírez pitched to a 6.33 ERA and struggled badly to put batters away, averaging less than half a strikeout per inning pitched. The Nats stuck with Ramírez as long as they could, but they cut him loose in early June; his intended role in the bullpen was filled briefly by Kuhl and later, more durably, by Robert Garcia.

Jackson Rutledge — C

Rutledge finished his 2022 campaign still mired in the low minors. But the former first-round draft pick made significant strides in 2023, starting the year at Double-A Harrisburg and pitching well there to earn a midseason promotion to Triple-A Rochester. The Nats brought him up for a cup of coffee in September, and he made four starts for the major league team down the stretch, including in Game 162, a no-decision against the Braves. Two of Rutledge’s starts were quite good; his first and fourth starts were not good at all. Rutledge is tough to rate here, because objectively, a 6.75 ERA is really bad and should have the Nats looking elsewhere in free agency. But these grades are on a curve relative to what the Nats likely hoped to get out of these players when they put them on the roster, and in that respect, Rutledge gets a passing grade. He showed he can get major league hitters out, and he also showed he has some work to do before he can be relied upon to get major league hitters out. The Nats should be pleased Rutledge made it to the bigs, and they should have some (measured) hope for his future success. But they shouldn’t count on him to be anything to start the 2024 season; he is not, as he demonstrated, a plug-and-play major league starter.

Mason Thompson — D+

Thompson looked, for a brief, glorious moment early in the season, like he just might be the third in a three-headed monster at the back of Washington’s bullpen. Then something happened. Maybe it was overuse, maybe it was injury, maybe it was a loss of focus, maybe it was overexposure, maybe it was just the law of averages. But Thompson, who carried a sub-2 ERA into May and was regularly entrusted with high-leverage work late in the ballgame — including a spectacular three-inning save — utterly imploded after Memorial Day. From that point on, he pitched to a brutal 7.09 ERA in 31 games sandwiched around an IL stint. The Nats optioned him in mid-September, and he ended the season in the minor leagues. Thompson has outstanding stuff, and he filled an important role in the bullpen for the first month or so of the season, but his collapse after that makes it impossible to regard this as a successful season for him, and it leaves the Nats with serious questions about his role going forward.

Thaddeus Ward — D+

Ward was the Nats’ first Rule 5 selection to their major league roster in over a decade. The former Red Sox prospect had to be either on the major league roster or inactive all season, in order for the Nats to maintain team control over him. It’s questionable whether he did enough to reward their gambit, but anyway, the season is over and Ward is still here. Based on the results, it’s safe to expect Ward is going to see some time in the minors in 2024, now that the Nats can send him there. Used mostly as a long reliever, Ward struggled to command the ferocious movement on his pitches, walking an astounding 17.5% of the batters he faced; his strikeout-to-walk ratio was barely better than 1:1. He gave up 25 earned runs in 35⅓ innings pitched. And yet — is there anything here? Is there a reason the Nats stuck with Ward, beyond his uncanny resemblance to D.C. sports legend Ryan Zimmerman? He did pitch a lot better when he came back from a (hotly anticipated, by that point) extended stay on the IL late in the season, albeit over just five games (1.80 ERA, .597 OPS against). And he flashed good stuff, when he was able to throw it vaguely in the direction of where he wanted it to go. Ultimately, though, Ward was not a positive contributor to the Nats’ fortunes in 2023, and while he’s officially in the clear and a full member of the Nats’ roster going forward, he has a lot of work to do to convince anyone he should be considered a key part of the rebuild.

Jordan Weems — B+

Weems was a non-roster invitee in 2022 who ended up getting into 32 games, with mediocre results. But his peripherals suggested Weems was a better pitcher than his ERA showed, and Weems got more opportunities in 2023. The outcome was sort of the opposite. Weems pitched to a healthy 3.62 ERA over 51 games, mostly in the second half, but his advanced metrics regressed somewhat; in particular, his walk rate spiked to over half a walk per inning. Weems deserves a good grade because he clearly outperformed any reasonable expectation for him. As a journeyman, he found his way into the back of Davey Martinez’s bullpen and mostly acquitted himself well. Under the hood, though, it seems clear the Nats would be better served if they can pencil Weems into lower-leverage spots in 2024; he had a tendency to melt when pitching with a lead (.825 OPS against), and he showed some strain in September, appearing in thirteen games and amassing a 6.55 ERA on the month. Weems had a good season and has likely earned a spot on the Opening Day roster in 2024, but caveat emptor. The Nats shouldn’t count on him to replicate his results next season.

Trevor Williams — D

Williams was signed to stabilize the rotation. Instead, he was an arsonist. Making 30 starts, he pitched to a 5.55 ERA and averaged less than five innings per start. On its face, his numbers are worse than Corbin’s but not that much worse, so why is he graded so much lower? Two reasons: Corbin was awful in 2021 and 2022, and so expectations for him were set quite low (despite his hefty salary) in 2023. More concretely, though, Corbin ate innings, whereas Williams frequently flamed out and left the bullpen to inherit a mess and cover five or six innings. Williams wasn’t bad at all for the first two months of the season, entering June with a 3.93 ERA. Then his peripherals caught up with him, and he stumbled to a 6.55 ERA the rest of the way. If Williams had done what he did while soaking up innings, it might have been enough for the Nats to pencil him into the bottom of the rotation again for the second year of his contract in 2024. As it is, if Williams makes the team at all, it will likely be in relief.

Amos Willingham — D

Willingham had a chance to establish himself as a useful middle reliever this season. He wasn’t a top prospect, but he’d been pitching well in the high minors, and when the Nats had a need in their bullpen, they called him up for his major league debut in June. Regrettably, Willingham just couldn’t seize the opportunity. He couldn’t put away major league hitters with his limited repertoire, and he got tagged for eight home runs in just eighteen relief appearances. Willingham was able to give the Nats some length, getting four or more outs in half of the games in which he appeared. But the results just weren’t there, and while the Nats gave Willingham a second look in September, he didn’t show enough improvement to stick. He likely finds himself on the roster bubble this winter.

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