Who the heck is that guy? #Nats 2024 spring training field guide, pitching edition

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

Spring training is once again upon us. Pitchers and catchers have reported, along with most of the rest of the Washington Nationals.

It has not been an impressive offseason for General Manager Mike Rizzo & Co. Many of Rizzo’s stated priorities heading into the winter have not been addressed, or they’ve been addressed very cheaply and by players who don’t inspire a great deal of confidence. But all around baseball, the offseason has moved slowly, and the Nats aren’t the only team that begins the preseason with an unfulfilled shopping list.

The Nats have chosen not to invite as many non-roster players to camp this year as they have in many past springs. However, they’ve also continued to add players on minor league deals even since camp opened earlier this week. More signings could yet follow, although Rizzo has said not to expect any more major league deals (the Nats evidently satisfied with the three one-year guarantees they’ve already handed out).

With that, let’s take a look at some of the faces Nats fans might not recognize: non-roster invitees and pitchers who didn’t appear for the Nats last season. We’ll take a similar look at position players in a second part of this annual feature.

#9 – Cade Cavalli

2023 stats: DNP
Career stats (MLB): 14.54 ERA, 1.87 WHIP, 26.1% K, 21.7% BB+HBP, 0% HR
Career stats (minors): 3.51 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 28.7% K, 11.7% BB+HBP, 0.9% HR

The Nationals’ fourth-ranked prospect is in camp, but he’s continuing to rehab after tearing his UCL last spring training. Cavalli had looked great prior to the injury and was on track to be part of the starting rotation. Instead, his rotation spot was filled last year by Chad Kuhl and then Jake Irvin (a fellow Oklahoma product).

Cavalli has made all of one start in MLB, late in the 2022 season, and it didn’t go very well. He’s been much better in the minor leagues, but control has been a consistent concern. Cavalli doesn’t give up a lot of home runs and does miss a lot of bats, something that will be key for him to translate into his major league pitching game to have success unless he somehow comes back from Tommy John surgery with improved command (which pretty much never happens, and it’s usually the opposite).

We likely won’t see Cavalli in game action until April at the soonest. After a few tuneup appearances in the minors, he could make his 2024 season debut with the Nats in May or June, barring any further setbacks. His path to a rotation spot looks clear, given the Nats didn’t bring in anyone to compete for a job this winter.

#37 – Stephen Strasburg

2023 stats: DNP
Career stats (MLB): 3.24 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 28.9% K, 7.5% BB+HBP, 2.5% HR

Everyone knows who Strasburg is, and it’s unclear whether he’ll be in camp at all; but he makes this list because he didn’t appear for the Nats in 2023.

There’s really nothing much to say here that hasn’t already been said. Stephen Strasburg is one of the greatest players to ever put on a Washington MLB uniform. His career is over in all but the official sense, as he’s reportedly dealing with injuries so severe that he has limited range of motion and loss of sensation in his right arm. Strasburg and the Nats were reported to be in agreement on a deal for Strasburg to retire late last season and be honored at Nationals Park, but the deal fell through — several media outlets reported the Nats reneged on the agreement days before the ceremony was expected to take place — and as a result, Strasburg is still on the roster this spring.

Strasburg will not appear this season. It would be a positive sign for his strained relationship with the Nats if he reports to spring training at some point, even if it’s just to work with the team’s younger pitchers for a day or two, but it’s unclear if he will report unless the Nats attempt to compel him to do so — which would not be good for the relationship between team and their 2019 World Series hero. But all that is, in the very literal sense, inside baseball. So, let’s move on.

#44 – Dylan Floro

2023 stats (MLB): 4.76 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 23.4% K, 8.1% BB+HBP, 1.2% HR
Career stats (MLB): 3.42 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 21.5% K, 7.9% BB+HBP, 1.3% HR

The only pitcher the Nats actually signed to a major league contract this winter, and one of just a handful who weren’t in the organization last year to be in major league camp, the 33-year-old Floro has had a pretty decent career as a right-handed reliever. His career ERA is respectable if unspectacular; so is his strikeout rate; he doesn’t give out many free passes, which is good; but he’s been a bit too hittable, which accounts for his slightly elevated WHIP.

Last year, Floro struggled as a Miami Marlin, then after he was traded at the deadline, he struggled more as a Minnesota Twin. The Nats have signed Floro to a cheap one-year deal hoping he bounces back well enough to pitch competently in a middle relief role, perhaps with the upside of working as a setup man if one or more of the trio of Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, and Hunter Harvey don’t work out at the back end of the bullpen.

Floro isn’t a particularly hard thrower, with a fastball that averages 92-93 mph. That’s at least a somewhat different look for the Nats to present as a complement to their existing stable of hard-throwing righties in the relief corps. But Floro will continue to struggle if he misses his spots and leaves that humdrum heater out over the plate. His sinker especially got tattooed in 2023, with a whiff rate below 10% and an average exit velocity of 89 mph. He will need to either ditch that pitch or get a lot better at using it to have success in 2024.

#53 – Joe La Sorsa (NRI)

2023 stats (MLB): 4.41 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 19.3% K, 10.3% BB+HBP, 2.1% HR
2023 stats (minors): 3.68 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 17.7% K, 7.9% BB+HBP, 3% HR
Career stats (minors): 2.95 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 24.7% K, 7.1% BB+HBP, 2.6% HR

Nats fans are familiar with La Sorsa from his work out of the bullpen last season. The Nats claimed him off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays in June, and for the rest of the year, La Sorsa yo-yoed between Triple-A Rochester and the major leagues as a depth reliever. By the numbers, La Sorsa was competent as a left-handed reliever, if somewhat homer-prone, but he didn’t do enough to cement his roster spot. The Nats DFA’d him this winter, then re-signed him on a minor league deal and invited him to spring training.

La Sorsa is still 25 (26 in April) and showed real promise in the minor leagues, where he has quite strong career numbers. Unfortunately, as a major leaguer, La Sorsa has struggled to miss bats and has also struggled to pound the strikezone, so his numbers have unsurprisingly backed up. He still has a chance to establish himself as an effective big league pitcher, but this spring, he will be fighting to get back onto a major league roster. (The upside, for what it’s worth, is that he’s one of just six non-roster pitchers in camp as of this week, with the Nats opting not to repeat their usual practice of signing a mix of veterans, minor league journeymen, and fringe prospects to compete for bullpen roles. So, he doesn’t have much competition.)

When you look at La Sorsa’s pitching metrics, one number in particular stands out: his 1st-percentile fastball velocity. La Sorsa averaged just 88 mph on his primary pitch, a sinking fastball, in 2023, and he really struggled to get it by hitters. It’s tough to stick in the major leagues when opposing batters hit .383/.944 off your fastball. He’ll have to show he can make it work with a below-average fastball in 2024.

#65 – Robert Gsellman (NRI)

2023 stats (NPB): 4.63 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 13.6% K, 11.2% BB+HBP, 1.7% HR
Career stats (MLB): 4.60 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 18% K, 9.3% BB+HBP, 2.6% HR

The Nats know Gazelle Man Gsellman well from his time in the New York Mets organization. Although he occasionally looked like he could emerge as a decent back-end starter, or at least a serviceable long reliever, Gsellman never really put it all together. He spent last season in Japan, with less-than-stellar results; notably, he barely struck out more NPB batters than he walked or hit in his time overseas.

Gsellman returns to the NL East in 2024. He’ll get some innings in camp, where he figures to compete for a spot in the bullpen rather than in the rotation. While he started in Japan, he’s only started five MLB games since 2017. Then again, the Nats are very poor on starting depth, so they might be desperate enough to trial-run Gsellman in that capacity.

Gsellman has never had dominant stuff, and his once above-average command has backed up, with a free-pass rate in the low double digits in the NPB. That limits his ceiling in relief. He looks likely to serve as injury depth at Triple-A Rochester this season, barring a standout spring.

Zach Brzykcy

2023 stats: DNP
Career stats (minors): 3.49 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 35.3% K, 12.7% BB+HBP, 2.5% HR

Initially tipped as a dark horse candidate to make the Opening Day roster out of camp in 2023, Brzykcy had his season derailed by a UCL tear he suffered before Grapefruit League play even began. The former non-drafted free agent (from back in the pandemic-wrecked 2020 draft season) has gotten a year older in the interim, but he’s still just 24, and he has a chance to make his belated major league debut in 2024.

Since Brzykcy is less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, he’s not expected to be a full participant in camp this year. It’s unclear when he might make his season debut in the minor leagues, but it could be as soon as April or May.

Brzykcy is a reliever in the true Washington Nationals mold, with a very high strikeout rate that mostly makes up for an elevated walk rate. Minor leaguers have struggled to hit his high-90s fastball, which has rated as perhaps the best fastball in the system. It remains to be seen whether he can keep bringing the heat (and vertical break) in 2024 once he returns from rehab.

Cole Henry

2023 stats (minors): 6.21 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 25% K, 14.2% BB+HBP, 4.1% HR
Career stats (minors): 3.29 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 31.1% K, 11.3% BB+HBP, 2.4% HR

There’s been a lot riding on Henry the past couple years as he battled injuries. The good news is that Henry appears to have put to rest any concerns that thoracic outlet syndrome would completely end his career. The bad news is that in every way, he wasn’t the pitcher in 2023 that he was before undergoing TOS surgery the season prior.

Henry was able to take the field and make ten starts, but he struggled to go deep into games — he somehow managed to pitch just 33⅓ innings despite appearing in fourteen games, only four of those out of the bullpen — and his control was all over the plate. His stuff still played OK, but not like it did prior to the surgery, and he gave up six home runs over that relatively small body of work.

The pressure is off Henry at this point, which is the best news. He’s no longer a consensus top prospect in the organization, he’s no longer clawing his way back into the game after battling a condition that has ruined many a career (including Strasburg’s, mentioned above), and he’s on the 40-man roster with a bunch of other guys in line ahead of him who would likely be cut before Henry. Hopefully with the benefit of less pressure and more time between the surgery and the present, Henry can return to form in 2024. As it stands, there is virtually zero chance of him making the Opening Day roster.

DJ Herz

2023 stats (minors): 3.43 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 32.4% K, 15.6% BB+HBP, 1.2% HR
Career stats (minors): 3.64 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 34.3% K, 17% BB+HBP, 1.7% HR

The Nats likely hoped for a bigger return when they shopped Jeimer Candelario at the trade deadline last year. But the market didn’t really develop, and they ended up settling for a couple of mid-tier prospects from the Chicago Cubs. Since then, one of those prospects (Kevin Made) has backed up and didn’t even earn a roster spot to protect him ahead of the Rule 5 draft (he wasn’t selected). The other, Herz, pitched well at Double-A Harrisburg and effectively in the Arizona Fall League, and the Nats promoted him to the 40-man roster this winter.

Herz is a solidly built lefty who gets great movement on his pitches, especially a Vulcan changeup that evaluators consider to be perhaps the best in the Nats system. The flip side of that is his control numbers are very poor, as he gave out free passes this year at a rate above 15% — and that was actually somehow an improvement from his career norms.

The 23-year-old shows promise, but it’s unlikely he can succeed as a starter unless he can rein in the walks. But lefties who can strike out the planet are always highly coveted in relief roles, and the Nats could have a weapon on their hands — and a very rare success story from their pitcher development pipeline — if Herz can translate his game to the major league level in 2024. What is less clear is how quickly the Nats will convert Herz from starting to relief. The organization has been notoriously slow to “give up” on their prospects as starters, even when they only have two standout pitches and their walk rates are elevated. If the Nats continue to push Herz as a starter, he may not find as much success.

Mitchell Parker

2023 stats (minors): 4.72 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 27.9% K, 11.3% BB+HBP, 2.4% HR
Career stats (minors): 4.20 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 28.8% K, 12.1% BB+HBP, 2% HR

Parker is essentially Herz but a year older, with slightly worse numbers overall but slightly better command. The Nats have seen the 24-year-old lefty flash incredible potential, including an eight-inning gem late last season that came a couple weeks after he struck out thirteen batters in six innings (both at the Double-A level). He earned a promotion to Triple-A late in the season, where the results were mixed, including a seven-run debacle against the Indianapolis Indians that was followed five days later by eight strikeouts over four scoreless innings against the same team.

Parker is somewhat of an enigma at this point, capable on any given day of looking like a bona fide top pitching prospect and on the next of looking like he should have been converted to a relief role a long time ago. For what it’s worth, he hasn’t demonstrated significant platoon splits; and while his fastball velocity is average, checking in around 92-93 mph, his arm action gives him a great deal of deception and he can move the ball very well around the zone when he’s at his best.

The Nats could consider Parker for a bullpen role as soon as March, but first they have to be persuaded to abandon the idea of him as a starter. That’s arguably tougher to do with Parker than it is Herz; Parker wasn’t always able to work deep into games, but he pitched 124 innings last season to Herz’s 94⅓ (he made four more starts than Herz) and had a few sterling games in which he was very effective in the middle to late innings. But most evaluators do agree Parker’s future is in relief, and the Nats might be best served to rip off the Band-Aid now. Then again, given how little they did to bolster the team’s pitching depth this winter, they might not feel they have that luxury.

Luis Perdomo (NRI)

2023 stats (NPB): 2.13 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 19.6% K, 7.2% BB+HBP, 0.5% HR
Career stats (MLB): 5.12 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 16.7% K, 9.3% BB+HBP, 2.8% HR

One of the few non-roster pitchers so far from outside the Nats’ organization this spring, Perdomo spent last year in Japan, where he pitched rather well. Perdomo has never missed many bats, but he effectively limited free passes and homers during his NPB stint, and the Nats were intrigued enough to break their apparent “no non-roster pitchers from outside the organization” rule this winter by signing him shortly before camp.

So, why doesn’t Perdomo, 30, strike out many batters? He has a hard sinker that averaged 94 mph in 2022, coupled with a slider and splitter; that’s typically a profile that racks up Ks. Instead, Perdomo’s arsenal has helped him get groundballs, which have accounted for 58% of batted balls against Perdomo in his MLB career. That rate ticked up over 60% in 2022, although that wasn’t enough to keep him Stateside.

Perdomo is a worthwhile flier. He was trying to bounce back from a lost 2021 season due to Tommy John surgery in 2022, and he pitched fine for the Milwaukee Brewers when he was healthy, putting up a 3.80 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. No, he didn’t strike anyone out (12.5% K that year), and he missed hefty amounts of time with various injuries, but he wasn’t bad, and then he was quite effective in Japan. He should compete for a spot in the Opening Day bullpen and could put himself in line to be called up later in the year if he doesn’t make the cut. It’s unclear whether he has the right to opt out of his contract.

Jacob Barnes (NRI)

2023 stats (MLB): 5.93 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 13.1% K, 6.6% BB+HBP, 1.6% HR
2023 stats (minors): 2.47 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 20.4% K, 10.4% BB+HBP, 0.9% HR
Career stats (MLB): 4.76 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 22.8% K, 10.4% BB+HBP, 2.8% HR

The very definition of a journeyman reliever, the 33-year-old right-hander Barnes spent his 2023 bouncing around the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, and St. Louis Cardinals organizations, coming out of the bullpen thirteen times for the Cardinals; Cardinals fans would probably say that was thirteen times too many. Barnes was a lot better in the minor leagues, although he still allowed a fair amount of traffic on the basepaths.

It’s been a few years since Barnes has been any good at the major league level; in fact, he hasn’t posted an ERA lower than 5.50 since 2018, and he’s only managed a WHIP below 1.40 once since 2017. Barnes throws hard, with a fastball that averages 95 mph, but his primary secondary pitch (an 89-mph cutter) doesn’t separate itself much from the fastball. Barnes doesn’t fool a lot of hitters, as his strikeout rate has tumbled over the past couple of seasons into the low double digits, and his primary pitch gets tattooed too often (average exit velocity in 2023 of 91 mph!).

Barnes looks like minor league filler. He’s been able to repeatedly find his way back to the big leagues every year, so it’s certainly possible he does it again with the Nats. But there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need here. The Nats have other right-handers who bring the heat and aren’t overmatched at the major league level, as Barnes has consistently proven himself to be. But the Nats do value experience, and they could turn to Barnes if injuries clear some space in the relief corps.

Richard Bleier (NRI)

2023 stats (MLB): 5.28 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 12.1% K, 6.1% BB+HBP, 3.8% HR
2023 stats (minors): 3.48 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 15.6% K, 11.1% BB+HBP, 0% HR
Career stats (MLB): 3.27 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 13.6% K, 5.3% BB+HBP, 1.8% HR

Don’t call it a comeback for Bleier. The lefty journeyman was lights-out as a 28-year-old starter at Triple-A Syracuse all the way back in 2015, but despite that year’s Nats having a colander for a bullpen, he never earned a call-up to the big leagues, wasn’t promoted to the 40-man roster after the season, and left as a minor league free agent…only to make his major league debut the following season with the Yankees and proceed to put up three straight seasons of sub-2 ERA relief in the AL East. The Nats might have missed a trick there.

Bleier has never missed many bats, but he’s thrived thanks to pinpoint command and a massive groundball rate (60% career). Unfortunately, Bleier, 37 in April, took a significant step back last year with the Boston Red Sox, where he landed after a few years of tormenting the Nats with their rivals in Baltimore and Miami. He struggled to stay healthy, and when he was able to take the field, he was bedeviled by the longball — not something you want or expect to see from a groundball specialist.

The Nats have brought back Bleier to see what he can do as a lefty reliever. Aside from a handful of spot starts here and there, Bleier’s starting days are long behind him, and for him to succeed in D.C., he will need to keep the ball down and pound the bottom of the strikezone. He figures to have Joe La Sorsa and José A. Ferrer as his primary competition, with the Nats, as ever, looking thin on left-handed depth.

Zach Davies (NRI)

2023 stats (MLB): 7.00 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 19.1% K, 10.9% BB+HBP, 2.7% HR
2023 stats (minors): 6.50 ERA, 1.83 WHIP, 15.7% K, 9.6% BB+HBP, 1.2% HR
Career stats (MLB): 4.36 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 17.5% K, 8.8% BB+HBP, 3.0% HR

The Nats went into spring training with literally no one from outside the organization signed to push Trevor Williams (abysmal in 2023) or Jackson Rutledge (uneven across four late-season starts) for the fifth starter spot. Then they took a chance on Davies, who is coming off a disappointing two-year stint in Arizona but has some better years in the rear-view mirror. He’s in camp as a non-roster invitee.

Davies, who just turned 31, was serviceable if not stellar for the Diamondbacks in 2022, posting a 4.09 ERA with a 1.30 WHIP. The peripherals suggest he was a bit lucky that year, and then that he was a bit unlucky in 2023, when his ERA ballooned to 7. He wasn’t very good in 2021 with the Chicago Cubs, but his pandemic season with the San Diego Padres went quite well as he pitched to a 2.73 ERA over twelve starts. Davies is kind of a “choose-your-own-adventure” guy, as he’s had some good times but not much to speak of recently. Interestingly, he’s pitched in 200 major league games, and he’s started every single one of them, so there’s little reason to think the Nats have him in camp for any reason other than to compete for a starter role.

A lot of fans were hoping the Nats would, even if not prepared to spend to the levels of a Yoshinobu Yamamoto or a Blake Snell this winter, at least sign a No. 4-ish starter like a Hyun-Jin Ryu or a Sean Manaea. That didn’t happen. From the D-tier of starting pitchers available this winter, Davies isn’t the worst option, but he’s a pure flier. He’s a soft tosser who occasionally hits 90-91 mph at the high end. He was worse even last season than Williams was and struggled to stay healthy to boot, missing some time with a back issue. (On the plus side, at least he’s never lost a start at Nationals Park.) The Nats will hope the undersized righty can find his previous form, but it’s not a high ceiling here. There’s a decent chance that even if Davies breaks camp with the Nats, he’s this year’s Chad Kuhl.

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