Spring Training Games #26 and #27 in split-squad doubleheader

Five days from today is Opening Day in Cincinnati for the Washington Nationals. Manager Dave Martinez has already named Josiah Gray as his starting pitcher for that game. There will be no extra rest as Gray is set to pitch in the second game of this day/night split-squad doubleheader and stay on that 5-day schedule for Thursday’s start. Jake Irvin is set to start the first game today at 1:05 pm against the Cardinals in Jupiter. The second game begins at 6:05 pm at CACTI Park as the Nats final home game of the Grapefruit League in 2024.

Even though rosters were reduced yesterday with some controversial cuts, the split-squad doubleheader will require extra players on-hand. The only prospects remaining on the big league roster are Jacob Young, Drew Millas, Nasim Nunez, and Trey Lipscomb. With 31 healthy players remaining in camp, there will need to be at least five more cuts. Remember, there is always the possibility of waiver claims, trades, and free agent signings. We’ve seen some last minute shocking moves before — but generally speaking — before Friday’s cut day, we were only mildly surprised that LHP Richard Bleier was cut and sent to minor league camp.

Yes, you are always prepared to expect the unexpected, and Bleier was expected to make it to the final day on Thursday. The competition in the bullpen was excellent this year. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the starting rotation. This was identified as Priority Numero Uno. At the Winter Meetings, general manager Mike Rizzo was clear that the team was seeking a pitching upgrade for the starting rotation. Then the revelation surfaced coming into camp that they just could not find that starting pitcher that made sense for the team. In the second round of cuts, Jackson Rutledge was sent to Triple-A camp, and Zach Davies and Trevor Williams were in a competition for the fifth starter’s spot.

Yesterday, Davies was released, essentially handing the fifth starter’s spot to Williams who has been shaky in his last two starts and is sporting a 7.20 ERA which might be worse than it first appears given the level of competition was a 8.6 per BBRef. If all of this was just a blip for a starter that has a long history of greatness, then you might not worry — but Williams pitched in 2023 to a 5.55 ERA — the worst on the staff. Isn’t this the time to maybe go back to Rutledge? He pitched to a 3.86 ERA to a competition ranking of 7.2. The issue that we saw with Rutledge was that 6.4 BB/9 and a 1.571 WHIP kind of makes it look like he was a little lucky on that ERA. Williams gave up ZERO walks, and his only problem was balls finding holes. Maybe Rizzo chalked that up to being unlucky. So here we are with what looks like a set starting rotation.

There is a saying that you get what you give. You put in the work, and you should be rewarded. Rizzo’s challenge early in camp was that spots were open for any prospect that could kick the door down. The prospects all tried. Dylan Crews had a walk-off single on Thursday but struggled in camp, Robert Hassell III had a very encouraging camp until he was hobbled by a groin injury, Brady House was good at times, and Darren Baker showed that he had some highlight reel plays in him but couldn’t surpass the incumbents or Lipscomb. The other top prospects on “Hope Row” are James Wood and Trey Lipscomb, and they played and competed in a big way. Crews, Wood, and House are the three highest rated prospects for the Nats, and are in MLB’s coveted Top-100. Also, Crews and Wood are in the Top-10 of elite prospects. While Wood certainly kicked the door down, Lipscomb’s locker is the lone remaining spot in Hope Row that is occupied.

At the end of the day, you can only control what you can control. Rizzo made his decision and obviously had his reasons. Wood did all he could do. What an audition. Bravo to him. Crews finished on a high note. There are many positives to take from this Spring Training. We might look back on all of this and say the smartest thing was to send Wood, Crews, and House back to minor league camp. As far as possibly maintaining team control for another season, absolutely. That could be the silver lining in all of this.

“We always go into this thing with a ‘what can help our team and give us the biggest bang for our buck for what we have’ attitude.”

— Rizzo said about making prospect promotions on the Grant & Danny radio show on 106.7 The Fan

The Washington Nationals are building towards a future of sustained winning. You hope that winning starts sooner than later. Maybe this 2024 Nats’ team will be the equivalent of the 2023 Reds where they remained competitive into the mid-season, and the team promoted several top prospects to bolster their roster. They finished 82-80 after going 62-100 in 2022. What a turnaround. It does show it is possible. While they just missed out on the playoffs, their issue was really about whether or not the Reds would go after the big free agents to bolster their roster to really go after it in a weak NL Central, and they didn’t do it. FanGraphs has them as the eighth worst team in baseball going into this season. The Nats are projected to be the second worst team in that FanGraphs’ ranking. The Nats certainly didn’t do enough in the offseason.

Reality will play out when the games that count start on Thursday. The Nats record in Spring Training at 15-10 and a guaranteed winning record will be wiped clean. Nothing they have done has moved FanGraphs much from a 66-96 projected record. That didn’t deter the Reds last year from blowing past the projections, and the Nats did the same when they finished with 71-wins in 2023. Play the games, and let’s see. Hope springs eternal.

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