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MacKenzie Gore joins Nationals as a key piece of return for Juan Soto

MacKenzie Gore, 23, was dominant at the start of this season. (Derrick Tuskan/AP Photo)
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PHILADEPLHIA — Keibert Ruiz was sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday, squinting at the field. The young catcher rubbed his black bat and joked it had to wake up. Then he asked a reporter what he thought of the return the Washington Nationals received for Juan Soto and Josh Bell this week. Ruiz was unfamiliar with most of the players, unaware of what affiliate they were headed to, a bit unsure about trading Soto and Bell in the first place. But having played in the National League West before last summer, Ruiz does have a short history with one of his new teammates.

“The fastball is electric,” Ruiz said, referring to left-handed starter MacKenzie Gore. “What’s going on with his arm?”

Told it was elbow inflammation — and not something more dire such as a sprain or full ligament tear — Ruiz nodded. But the Nationals had similar questions while negotiating a blockbuster deal with the San Diego Padres. Gore, 23, was dominant at the start of this season, posting a 1.50 ERA through the first nine appearances of his career. His seventh start included seven scoreless against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His four-seam fastball sits in the mid-90s with good spin. He complements it with a slider, curve and change-up that, to this point, he solely throws to right-handed hitters.

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Gore is, to put it plainly, a potential ace for an organization that has long built contenders around its rotation. General Manager Mike Rizzo has never been shy with spending on pitchers in free agency and the draft. In 2019, the Nationals famously shrank their playoff staff to Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, then had a World Series title to show for it. And since that feels like forever ago, Washington hopes Gore is at the foundation of their next foundation, a front-line arm with plenty of great years ahead.

“I mean, starting pitching is important if you want to win,” he said in Philadelphia on Thursday. So he gets it.

Upon joining the Nationals on the road, Gore met with the team’s medical staff and Manager Dave Martinez, who predicted Gore won’t throw for at least another seven to 10 days. The Nationals want to be extremely careful with his rehab. Shortly after the trade went down, one person with the Nationals called Gore’s health and development a "huge factor for how this trade will eventually look for us.”

A look at the players the Nationals are getting in the Juan Soto trade

With a strong recovery and reversion to what he was this spring, Gore could meet high expectations. But the potential for continued arm issues — a potential that exists with all pitchers — was a small hurdle, if nothing else.

“He’s had limited innings his whole career. He had a big workload early on this season that he’s never had before,” Rizzo said while recapping the trade Tuesday. Gore threw 70 innings before the Padres put him on the injured list, the last 20 or so affected by lingering elbow pain. A first-round pick out of high school in 2017, the most Gore has pitched as a professional was 101 in 2019. That season, his starts were split across high Class A and AA, and he finished with a 1.69 ERA.

“The injury did make things a little bit more complicated, a little bit more work,” Rizzo continued. “We had to do a lot of due diligence medically. But there was nothing hidden, and the reports and the MRIs were viewed, and the doctor gave us the thumbs up to complete the trade. We’re happy to get them. We see an upside, a left-handed starting pitcher in the big leagues for years to come that we control for a long time.”

Closing his eyes, maybe Rizzo can see a future rotation headlined by Gore, Cade Cavalli and Josiah Gray, who is 19 starts into his first full season and will face the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday. Maybe Cole Henry, a top prospect along with Cavalli, is in there, too. And depending on how the rebuild goes from here and whether Rizzo remains in his post long after a potential ownership change, maybe he gets to dive headfirst into free agency again, poaching marquee starters in some distant winter.

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On paper, it sounds promising for the Nationals. The reality is not quite as simple. Health aside, the club has to develop these budding pitchers in a way it has failed to in other cases. That’s a task for pitching coach Jim Hickey, minor league pitching coordinator Sam Narron, the affiliate pitching coaches, the analytics staff, the video staff and the strength and conditioning coaches who work on biomechanics and durability. It takes a village, so to speak, not just with Gore but also Gray, Cavalli, Henry, Jackson Rutledge, Jake Irvin, Evan Lee, Joan Adon, Andry Lara, Mason Denaburg, Mitchell Parker, Aldo Ramirez and Jarlin Susana, the 18-year-old fireballer who came with Gore and four others in the Soto trade.

Gore, though, is in the majors now and has a clear step in front of him. The Nationals should take as much time as needed to let his elbow heal.