The Washington Nationals finished the season with a much-improved 71-91 record. That also means that collectively the pitching staff finished 20-games under .500. Wins and losses for pitchers often are a factor of when runs are scored. The starters finished 25-games under .500 and the relievers at 5-games over .500. Seven walk-off wins and 6-2 in extra inning games will help those reliever W/L stats. The fact is that both the starting pitching staff and bullpen as a whole were not good. There were individuals that were good. But there was plenty of good, bad, and ugly rolled into the Nats’ season.
In Part I we covered the position players and piggybacked on the great piece that Sao Magnifico wrote. We do the same here for the pitchers. The starting pitchers finished at a poor 5.02 ERA which actually was a sizeable improvement over the 5.97 ERA of 2022. Much of that was better defense helping the pitching and individually Josiah Gray led the staff with a 3.91 and a huge improvement over his 5.02 last year. Gray started strong and finished strong but the middle got ugly for the team’s lone All-Star. Even Patrick Corbin improved, but in his case, it appears that you could chalk up most or all of it to the improvement in team defense.
Remember, general manager Mike Rizzo made an impassioned pledge to season ticket holders that an emphasis before the 2023 season would be to improve the defense, and overall he did.
The Nats starters and relievers finished with identical 5.02 ERAs as combined groups. Overall, the Nats had the fourth worst bullpen. The starters were the sixth worst in the MLB, but at the halfway point of the season, the Nats were actually the 15th best. The second half slide was felt in the team going 8-18 in September.
Cory Abbott — D on the Sao scale
The final numbers were ugly for the team’s long-man who mostly appeared in the mop-up roles. He spent a good chunk of the season in Triple-A Rochester. His 6.64 ERA was more indicative of what mop-up work is all about as he closed out 10-games, most of them blowouts. He did pitch in two tight games where he took losses. He did have a strong 9.2 K/9 rate as he could dance his breaking pitches. His future with the Nats will certainly be in question — but every team needs a long-man. Can the Nats upgrade to a mop-up man who could better a 6.64 ERA?
Joan Adon — C- on the Sao scale
Adon mostly worked as a starter for the Nats in 2023. He started 10-games and lost 66 percent of them. Not a good ratio, and again, ERA is so indicative of the problem. He was at a 6.45 and only averaged 4.6 innings as a starter which is bad. That means the bullpen had to basically match his innings output and most of those games were out of reach.
Anthony Banda — F on the Sao scale
Banda was added to the roster out of spring training as a non-roster invitee, and has already departed after he elected free agency when the season ended. He spent most of the season in Triple-A Rochester after his demotion early in the season.. His 6.43 ERA over his 10 appearances were worse than it looks because he was given lefty-lefty matchups in most cases to start his outings, and he could not get the job done.
Patrick Corbin — B- on the Sao scale and C- on the Ghost scale
Corbin was the worst pitcher in MLB in 2021 and 2022, and as we discussed last year, he wasn’t as bad as his 6.31 ERA in 2022 because of the defense behind him. Corbin had turned to more of a contact pitcher, hence relying on his defense. But he came into the 2023 with the same slop as he was throwing in 2022. You can’t teach this old dog new tricks. When his slider was working, he was good — when it wasn’t forget about it. He did make every start, and ate innings and gave his team a chance to win 17-games. In the end, the team was 15-17 in his starts, and that is below average for your No. 1 pitcher and highest paid active player. It sure would be nice if Corbin did something in the offseason to improve like working on his changeup, and ditching that 4-seam fastball for a cutter. His final season with the team will be 2024, and while we expect him to be a starter, the question is whether he will stick the full-season in the starting rotation.
Carl Edwards Jr. — C+ on the Sao scale
Edwards was injured for most of the 2023 season, and is the only player set to leave the team as a MLB free agent. He was one of the better relievers in the bullpen after a slow start. Because of that slow start, he just didn’t get many high-leverage appearances. While his 3.69 ERA was good, his WHIP of 1.516 was bad and was mostly due to his walks — especially to the first batter he would face. It just led to adventures with CEJ.
Paolo Espino — F on the Sao scale
To quote Sao on Espino, “He 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 on the Sao scale and C+ on the Ghost scale
A homegrown international free agent and a product of the player development system, Ferrer looked great at times but faded in his debut season. At times, he looked unlucky. The great news is he finished with a 3-0 record for the team. The bad news was that 5.03 ERA but his 4.55 FIP definitely suggests he was unlucky. He has room to improve, and at just 23 years old, we expect him to be a valuable piece going forward.
Kyle Finnegan — B- on the Sao scale
To note that too often I had to mention that Finnegan needed to miss bats. He served up more contact at times than a driver in a demolition derby. He feels to me to be a setup man on a good team, and a closer on a bad team. To go with Sao’s thoughts, “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 on the Sao scale
Let’s go with Sao’s synopsis, “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 on the Sao scale
A great waiver claim from Miami, Garcia quickly became one of manager Dave Martinez‘s go-to arms, and at times, seemed overused. His 9.4 K/9 rate was third best of the relievers only trailing Hunter Harvey and Jordan Weems who both had 9.9s. He did very well after some tweaks leading to a strong finish in his final 18-games with a 1.99 ERA. This lefty looks like a lock, with good health, to make the 2024 Opening Day roster. Certainly one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2023 season.
MacKenzie Gore — C+ on the Sao scale and B- on the Ghost scale
Gore had the highest K rate on the entire team with a 10.0 K/9. He had some games where he looked like an ace but at times he looked lost and would be very open about his lack of fastball control in games he struggled. His great 4-seam fastball that he came from San Diego with — went to a negative pitch for him with the Nats. Why? Can he fix the 4-seamer or add a cutter to his repertoire? His changeup is a promising work-in-progress. He finished with a 4.42 ERA and his 4.89 FIP was the best in the entire starting rotation. He had a 3.66 ERA in June and fatigue seemed to get to him as he finished with a 4.42. The Nats ended his season at the beginning of September with a blister. I think if he adds a cutter he could be the left-handed Max Scherzer. That is how good Gore could be as a lefty. The former first-rounder certainly has ace potential.
Josiah Gray — B- on the Sao scale
From Sao, “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- on the Sao scale
Opportunities are rare in baseball, and Harris earned a spot in the Opening Day bullpen as a non-roster invitee after a strong Spring Training. Unfortunately, Harris could not get it done after his MLB debut. He got mostly low-lev spots and still finished his debut season with a 5.12 ERA. His long-term future with the team is in question.
Hunter Harvey — A- on the Sao scale
Harvey’s season was mostly good, but when he blew a game — it really hurt. He got a shot to close a game in Miami with a 2-run lead and gave up a walk-off. That came at a time when the Nats had just smashed the Mets and looked to be headed to 19-23. Instead, the Nats fell to 18-24 and that led to a 4-game losing streak. Fortunately, Harvey learned a lot from that blown-save-loss and went on a nice run for the team. His WHIP was great at 0.940 and his 9.9 K/9 was the best in the bullpen tied with Weems.
Jake Irvin — B on the Sao scale and B- on the Ghost scale
Irvin made his debut in 2023 from the Nats player development system, and he was just part of the inconsistent starting rotation. At one point, Irvin looked like he could take the lead in best ERA on the team — then he hit the wall in the 5th inning on September 15. He entered the game with a 4.20 ERA and got his ERA down to 3.99 until his scoreless game crashed on him in that fifth inning against the Brewers. Irvin has a good curveball and a fastball that looks great at times when the batters are sitting on offspeed. Tell me if you’ve heard this before, Irvin could use a better changeup, and his sinker got him in trouble too often — and was his worst pitch getting hit at a .354 batting average with a horrific .551 slug. Kind of simple for Irvin, work on that changeup and either fix the sinker or ditch it for a cutter. As we saw with Kyle Bradish, he went from a dud to a stud when he turned his sinker in one offseason from a poor pitch to one of the best in baseball.
Chad Kuhl — F on the Sao scale
From Sao, “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+ on the Sao scale
From Sao, “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 on the Sao scale
Machado was at times the true fireman coming in mid-innings, but too often failed when he would pitch a clean inning in his next inning of work. He was just too inconsistent and you never knew which Machado you would get. As a fireman, Machado allowed just nine of the 37 runners he inherited in 44 games to score, but as mentioned, on his own ledger Machado just was not good giving up 29 earnies. His future should be as a fireman only, but usually that is a luxury most teams cannot afford.
Tanner Rainey — INC on the Sao scale
It was great to get Rainey back from Tommy John surgery even if it was just for one appearance. What we don’t know is what Rainey’s role will be going forward for the Nats. He has been both a closer and set-up man.
Erasmo Ramírez — F on the Sao scale
The Eraser erased himself off of the roster after he just had nothing this year. He was DFA’d and is currently a free agent.
Jackson Rutledge — C on the Sao scale
The great news is that Rutledge finally reached the Majors and the bad news is that he was inconsistent going bad to good and good to bad. He will have an offseason to work on his changeup. That was a pitch that worked in Triple-A but not in MLB. His sample size was too small to make many assessments but a 5.4 K/9 clearly points to his need for a putaway pitch which was a clear issue. He could use a vertical pitch like his circle changeup was supposed to be.
Mason Thompson — D+ on the Sao scale
From Sao, “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+ on the Sao scale
I’m not a fan of Rule-5. To me, you get better quality off waivers like the Nats did with Robert Garcia or taking salary dumps. The Red Sox didn’t protect Ward with a roster spot, and the Nats chose Ward as their first MLB Rule-5 selection in over a decade. He was coming off TJ surgery and was known to have wicked movement on his slider, but we saw was that he could not control any of his pitches with enough consistency to get them into the K zone or induce a swing and miss out of the zone. He walked 17.5 batters of the batters he faced, and his K rate was only a 7.6 K/9 giving him nearly a 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Also he received innings in blowout games where sometimes he was facing mostly bench players or bottom of the order spots, and he still couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities. He gave up 25 earned runs in 35⅓ innings pitched.
Jordan Weems — B+ on the Sao scale
Weems was Martinez’s pick to seemingly be up every game. He pitched in 51 games and averaged just over 1.0 innings per appearance. He definitely hit the wall late in the season from the use. His 3.62 ERA and a 5-1 record was good as he was one of the best on the team in missing bats. His 9.9 K/9 as mentioned was tied for the best in the bullpen. A few offseason tweaks and Weems could be a bullpen star.
Trevor Williams — D on the Sao scale
Williams signed with the Nats because he wanted to be a starter. It looked like a great choice when he had a 3.93 ERA to begin June, but he fell off a cliff after that and pitched so poorly that he stressed the bullpen and his manager. He finished with a 5.55 ERA and averaged less than five innings per start which is just ugly. But it was that 6.55 ERA after his 3.93 start that kept the Nats in the loss column too often. He was signed to a two-year deal and his role in 2024 could be back in the bullpen if you assume Gray, Gore, Irwin and Corbin are locks. All it would take is a legit starter added to push Williams out.
Amos Willingham — D on the Sao scale
Willingham was another player to make his MLB debut in 2023 from the Nats’ system. Unfortunately all of those great numbers in the Minors didn’t translate to the Majors. His 6.66 ERA and horrific 1.808 WHIP with the highest hard hit rate and 3.0 HR/9 won’t work unless Willingham makes adjustments.
Washington has some good players. If they had stupid money to spend, you get a closer like Josh Hader. Since the Nats don’t, they need to spend on a top of the rotation pitcher. This is the top priority for this offseason. To move Williams and his 5.55 ERA out of the rotation is addition by subtraction. Doubtful Rizzo signs two top starters because Cade Cavalli is due back mid-season from his TJ surgery. That will give the Nats extra depth.
The big thing is if Gray, Gore and Irvin get into the pitching labs and improve. Each of them are the future of this rotation. If each can improve, this team has a chance to meet what Martinez set as his goal to be in playoff contention for 2024.