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Nationals’ rotation is under construction as offseason heats up

Cade Cavalli will be among those counted on to provide a foundation for a thinned-out Nationals pitching staff. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Of the seven players the Washington Nationals removed from their 40-man roster in the past week, five — Erick Fedde, Tommy Romero, Evan Lee, Jackson Tetreault and Seth Romero — are starting pitchers.

Fedde, a rotation fixture in recent years, is no longer with the club after he was non-tendered Friday. Neither is Tommy Romero, who arrived late in the season and made just one start with Washington. Seth Romero also was released, though that move was precipitated by his second charge of driving while intoxicated this year. And Lee and Tetreault, quick risers before suffering injuries in the summer, remain with the organization but now face a more complicated path back to the majors.

This leaves a thinned group of starters — MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray, Cade Cavalli, Patrick Corbin, Cory Abbott, Paolo Espino, Joan Adon, Jake Irvin, Jackson Rutledge and maybe Stephen Strasburg — on the 40-man roster. If that list is viewed as who is most likely to pitch a solid game for the Nationals come April, it’s clear General Manager Mike Rizzo has holes to fill.

“You can never have enough starting pitching,” Rizzo said at the annual general managers meetings in early November, though the quote could be from any of his 13 years running the team. “That’s going to be a point of emphasis for us, to really look at the market as a whole.”

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Fifteen pitchers started a game for the Nationals in 2022. If Rizzo keeps with his low-spending, add-on-the-fringes strategy of the past year — and every indication is that he will — new arms could arrive on one-year deals, from the minor league free agent market, as waiver claims or even through the Rule 5 draft. The Nationals have two open spots on their 40-man roster. With a handful of expendable players, they easily could create more room.

With no guarantee Strasburg will take the mound again, Washington could enter the season with a rotation of Gore, Gray, Cavalli, Corbin and a wild-card internal option. Maybe it’s Espino, the trusted swing man, until another starter is ready. Maybe it’s Abbott, intriguing because of a unique slider yet mostly valuable because of minor league options that provide roster flexibility. Or maybe it’s a younger arm such as Irvin, a 25-year-old righty who was added to the 40-man along with Rutledge last week to protect them from being selected in the Rule 5 draft.

Irvin finished last season with 15 starts for Class AA Harrisburg. Rutledge, a first-round pick in 2019, has been slowed by injuries and wound up spending the whole year at low Class A Fredericksburg. Lee, protected from the Rule 5 draft in 2021, had his year cut short by an elbow injury. Tetreault turned in a pair of encouraging starts before he was sidelined with a stress fracture of his right scapula. Cole Henry, considered one of the club’s top prospects, underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in August and is just beginning a long recovery.

In any discussion about the Nationals, it’s important to remember the team is still plodding along the bridge toward being competitive again. The length of that bridge will be determined by a number of factors, including but not limited to: whether the club is sold and who buys it; whether the coaching and player development staff can mold the talent acquired in a pair of blockbuster trades; and whether, in the coming months and years, the front office makes sound decisions to build around its nascent core of Gore, Gray, Cavalli, shortstop CJ Abrams, second baseman Luis García and catcher Keibert Ruiz.

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But even with all that uncertainty, parsing out the next Opening Day roster is a worthwhile conversation. It matters, on a scale between micro and meagerly important, who the fifth starter is behind Gore, Gray, Cavalli and Corbin, then the sixth starter behind that guy, then the seventh starter behind that guy. It also matters, at least in a small way, how Manager Dave Martinez doles out center field reps to Victor Robles and Lane Thomas and how much of an opportunity is lent to Jake Alu amid Carter Kieboom’s return for another crack at third base.

The Nationals could use those starter spots to gauge who might be around when they regain relevance in the National League East. They could add a veteran with something to prove and try to flip him at the trade deadline, even though that didn’t work with Nelson Cruz, Steve Cishek or César Hernández in 2022. Or they could use veteran stopgaps — hello, Aníbal Sánchez! — to give Irvin, Rutledge and others more time.

In April, Washington pushed Adon to the majors and saw disastrous results. He was 23 and had logged just 23⅓ innings above high Class A. He got shelled in 14 outings, posting a 7.10 ERA and 12 losses. When he was demoted to Class AAA Rochester, where he should have been from the start, he pitched sporadically and couldn’t find a rhythm.

If Rizzo regrets how he and the Nationals handled Adon, he wouldn’t admit it publicly, nor is he likely to be more cautious with Irvin or any other starter close to the majors. He often expresses pride in fast-tracking young players, living with the highs and lows of doing so with Justin Upton (in Arizona), Bryce Harper, Lucas Giolito, Robles, Juan Soto, Kieboom and García, among others, over the years. Toward the end of the season, with the benefit of hindsight, two members of the major league staff wondered why Adon was continuously bludgeoned as Austin Voth was kept in a middle relief role that didn’t suit him. But Rizzo wanted to test Adon early, and the right-hander paid the price.

“In spring training, his stuff was good enough. You saw him throw strikes. … I don’t have regrets,” Rizzo said at the GM meetings. “The reason I don’t is because the kid, mentally, is tough as it gets. Getting beat up like he did is not going to affect him. It’s just going to make him stronger and more competitive.”

The departures of Fedde, Tommy Romero and Seth Romero could give Adon a chance to prove Rizzo right.

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