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The Starting Pitching Predicament The Nationals Are Facing...

For nearly the first two weeks of the season, everything stayed roughly on-script in Washington’s starting rotation.

Sure, Anibal Sanchez was sent to the Injured List before making his season debut, but inserting Josh Rogers into his place was an easy fix.

But that all came crashing down this week as things went haywire, shedding some light on the intentions of Dave Martinez and the front office with their young starting pitchers.

When it Rains, It Pours

Monday’s series opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks was postponed due to rain, and for the first time this season, Martinez had a real decision to make regarding his starting rotation – and perhaps the depth beyond the top five. Someone was going to have to start after at least one extra day of rest, and the Nationals would also have an extra roster spot to play with, as is customary during a doubleheader.

Martinez decided to keep his top starters on roughly standard rest, turning to No. 2 starter Josiah Gray in the opener and de facto No. 3 Joan Adon in the nightcap. Although this gave Gray an extra off day, it kept him as close to his regular routine as possible. The same went for Adon, despite the 29th man that the Nationals had at their disposal.

A Weekend Of Wondering

The tradeoff in using Gray and Adon on Tuesday was that they were forced to use their top five starters in a four-day span. Therefore, they’d either have to use Gray or Adon on short rest on Saturday, convert it into a bullpen game, or promote someone from the minor leagues to start the game.

The Nationals clearly didn’t want to use Gray sooner than they needed to. They seemed to strongly consider reliever Paolo Espino (a starter for much of last season) for the first few innings, but they were forced to use him in relief twice in three days leading up to Saturday.

Washington wound up selecting the contract of veteran Aaron Sanchez from Triple-A Rochester. He pitched a strong four innings before his day unraveled a bit. His final line was 4 1/3 innings, 6 hits, 1 walk and 4 runs allowed (all earned). Ultimately, it’s tough to get too disappointed about his performance. In fact, Martinez committed to Sanchez sticking in the rotation for at least one more turn, with Rogers transitioning to the bullpen.

Since Sanchez wasn’t on the 40-man roster, the Nationals designated right-handed reliever Patrick Murphy for assignment. Murphy was acquired off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays last summer, and although he was a top 20 prospect (per MLB Pipeline) in both organizations, he struggled to consistently stay in the strike zone. As it stands, he’s still in “DFA limbo” (the waiver claim process is still in progress).

Meanwhile, Martinez picked Adon to start Sunday’s series finale against the San Francisco Giants instead of Gray. With an off day coming prior to facing the Miami Marlins, Gray will receive a full week between starts.

Where’s Waldo?

There was also considerable concern throughout the week among Nats Twitter regarding Cade Cavalli. He gave up five runs in four innings on April 14 and then disappeared, not reemerging on the mound until Sunday.

We’ll never know for sure, but there’s a belief that Martinez was pondering giving Cavalli his major league debut this weekend – hence the 10-day layoff – before opting for the veteran Sanchez instead.

Babysitting The Youngsters

Okay, maybe that’s poor word choice. Nonetheless, the Nationals have a few pitchers under the age of 25 who will require some close attention throughout the season. Not only are they trying to establish themselves as viable – if not optimal– big league pitchers; they also haven’t proven the ability to handle intense workloads at any level yet.

None of Gray, Adon and Cavalli have pitched anywhere near the length of a major league season. Gray’s career high is 130 innings in 2019, and he was limited to 86 1/3 last year. Cavalli (123 1/3) and Adon (110 1/3) each tossed the most innings they ever have last year, which is well short of where the Nationals would prefer their big league arms to be.

This week has been the first time Washington’s mindset with the young starters has been placed under the spotlight. They’re operating more rapidly with Adon than Gray and Cavalli – including the fact that Adon, rather than Cavalli, was fast tracked to the majors.

By the looks of it, the Nationals feel more inclined to get Adon to his innings limit (likely 150, at most) and shut him down for the rest of the season, whereas they’d prefer to pace Gray and Cavalli to get them from start to finish this season, managing their workloads with built-in off days periodically.

For Adon, it seems to be most important to give him the exposure he needs while keeping him in rhythm (perhaps for the sake of confidence). We can – and will – have the discussion about whether he could use some more Triple-A time later. With Gray and Cavalli, who the organization wants to be long-term fixtures in the rotation, there’s an emphasis on letting them experience a full professional season – even if it requires some situational micromanagement.

Getting Through 162

If this is in fact their approach, Adon will need to be replaced in the rotation late in the season. However, this might take care of itself. Friday afternoon, Martinez revealed that Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross had each thrown 27-pitch bullpen sessions early in the day. That certainly doesn’t mean they’re close to making their season debuts, but they’re making progress in that direction.

Of course, Anibal Sanchez is still lingering on the IL as well, and Rogers is capable of sliding back into the rotation if needed.

However, the most intriguing option is Cavalli. If Washington continues to space out his appearances, he’ll be available deeper into the season than Adon, and the Nationals will presumably be far enough out of playoff contention for turning to more young pitchers to be logical and worthwhile.

The organization’s approach can always change as the season progresses. Strasburg and Ross could heavily impact the direction the Nationals take – and that’s without mentioning the trials and tribulations of Patrick Corbin, who for all we knew could eventually be demoted to the bullpen. Still, when it comes to the three most important young and big league-ready starting pitchers in the organization, their season will all come down to numbers – in terms of both on-field productivity and, more importantly, efficiency.

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Wednesday, 17 August 2022

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