Is there a competition for the starting rotation?

That photo says it all in Trevor Williams kicking dirt after being pulled from a game. Considering there were no complete games by Washington Nationals starting pitchers, manager Dave Martinez pulled his starting pitcher 162 times in 2023. That is not uncommon in baseball these days. But looking at the five main starting pitchers from last year, should they all be guaranteed spots in the 2024 rotation?

For a minute, let’s forget about that Patrick Corbin had a 5.20 ERA and Williams finished at 5.55. Let’s look at what the team did in games started by each. Josiah Gray 12-18, MacKenzie Gore 10-17, Jake Irvin 11-13, Corbin 15-17, Williams 14-16. Those team W/L records kind of defy the logic of ERA. Gray’s ERA was a team best 3.91, and Gore was second best at 4.42. Why would the team perform worse for them if they consistently gave up the fewest runs? Part of that is run support and some of it is blown saves and the rest could be chalked up to bad luck.

The team had a .400 winning percentage in Gray’s starts and clearly that won’t cut it. Oftentimes the comment was made that the offense went flat in Gray starts. Part of it is also the matchups. Gray was often matched up with the other team’s ace or second best starter like facing Shohei Ohtani, Spencer Strider, Kyle Bradish, Mitch Keller and Merrill Kelly. Of the eight times the Nats were shutout in 2023, Gray was the starting pitcher five of those times, and Gore two of the times. That is not good.

A reason you want to add a bona fide ace to the roster would be to take the brunt of those tougher pitcher matchups, and of course you don’t win when you’re shutout as you have to score runs is the Captain Obvious statement — but it would help in matchups by just pushing the weakest performer out of the rotation. Five better starters then you had last year seems like another Captain Obvious goal. The Nats just did not sign one free agent in the offseason to an MLB contract.

No evaluator we spoke to believes that general manager Mike Rizzo or Martinez will veer from that projected starting five that the team had for the 2023 season. Zach Davies signed a minor league deal with the Nats this month, and could pitch lights out in Spring Training and might not be enough to push Williams and Corbin out of the rotation.

Former Nats’ pitcher, Jacob Turner, was a first round pick and 9th overall by the Tigers in 2009. He was a top prospect that the Tigers gave up on quickly. He landed on a minor league deal with the Nats in 2017. Here’s his thoughts:

Here is a behind-the-scenes look into earning an Opening Day roster spot.

Hope is in the air for fanbases in spring training, and that feeling permeates the players.

Most teams rosters look something like this:

~ 80% of the players are locked in.
~ 10% of players are competing for a spot.
~ 10% of the future roster will be surprises.

For me, I was always in that 20%. I came to spring training every year with no guarantee of an opening day roster spot.

Let me be clear, that changes everything.

For the 20% fighting for an opportunity, everything matters.

From the first bullpen ~ To the backfields live BP ~ To the 7th inning appearance no one in the stands cares about ~ It all matters.

I remember those first bullpens feeling like some of my important pitches.

The coaches will say:

• “It is only Day 1”
• “Don’t blow it out”
• “No one makes the team on Day 1”

The reality is day 1 is like Thursday at The Masters to the 20% of the clubhouse fighting for a roster spot.

Sure you don’t win a golf tournament on Thursday — but it certainly feels like you can lose it.

That is just great to hear from Turner because this is Davies right now. He is in that 20 percent you would think. Why shouldn’t this be the best five go north? If the one who doesn’t make it has a minor league option, see ya in Rochester -or- if the weak link is Corbin or Williams, shove him in the bullpen or to a DFA. Is this about winning or about the size of their guaranteed contract?

Davies is this year’s version of John Lannan. Too many fans had issues with Lannan as a “soft tosser”, and that is what Davies is as a pitcher who averaged 90mph on his fastball last season. Lannan had a combined 4.01 ERA in his six seasons with the Nats, and his 3.70 ERA (4.28 FIP) in 2011 would have bettered every Nats starter in 2023 just to give you some perspective. In 2009, Lannan made 33 starts and topped 206 innings that year with a 3.88 ERA and two complete games. We would salivate for those results from a Nats pitcher in 2024.

From that 2009 season, not one of those pitchers, starters or relievers, made it to the 2019 World Series roster. Some of them were key parts in the Nats first playoff team in 2012. Turner and Lannan can tell you about being in that 20 percent every single year.

Making that climb during a rebuild is finding the players to make their positive contributions with the survivors going on to the next year and the years after that. This is like a tryout for the next great Washington Nationals season. Who will be around by then?

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