WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A day-by-day breakdown of the week that was for Washington Nationals starters, fully set in a role or otherwise:
Wednesday: It rained.
Thursday: Wily Peralta, unlikely to make the rotation, looked solid in three innings against the New York Mets, limiting them to three hits, no runs and no walks.
Friday: MacKenzie Gore was tagged with nine hits and five earned runs by the Astros in four innings.
Saturday: Williams was tagged with 10 hits and seven earned runs in 4⅔ innings by the Miami Marlins, who worked three walks and struck out four times.
Sunday: Chad Kuhl, in line to fill Cavalli’s spot, provided an encouraging punctuation mark. He completed five innings on 68 pitches against the Detroit Tigers, striking out five and allowing one run. In a 2-1 win, shortstop CJ Abrams returned from back tightness and punched two hits: a bloop single and a hustle double that ended with a headfirst slide.
So with Opening Day next week, is Dave Martinez concerned by those lopsided pitching lines? Or can the manager chalk them up to spring training, which is designed to prepare players for the season ahead without a focus on box scores?
“Veteran guys know what they’re going through,” Martinez said after Williams was knocked around by the Marlins. “For him, he wanted to work on some things. For young guys, they’re trying to attack the strike zone and get outs. [Saturday] was a little different for me.”
The week was mostly bad because Cavalli, a 24-year-old top prospect, will miss at least the next 12 months. And in reality, rough spring results don’t matter until they seep into the regular season (and not one minute before). Spring training is for tinkering. Spring training does not count.
On Thursday, for example, Josiah Gray threw 82 pitches on the back fields instead of in an exhibition so he could test his change-up in a controlled environment. On Saturday, Williams viewed 91 pitches as the main takeaway, seeing that he wants to reach between 100 and 105 before camp ends. He also pitched the Marlins differently because he could face them a lot during the season. And against the Mets on Monday night, Patrick Corbin logged six innings and five strikeouts while allowing one run.
But following an abysmal year for the rotation, the Nationals would certainly be settled by a few more efficient starts in West Palm Beach. The holdovers are Gray and Corbin, who’s in line for his second straight Opening Day start. Gore, Williams and Cavalli’s replacement will round out the group.
The season they’re tasked with burying? According to FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe, the 2022 rotation managed the fewest Wins Above Replacement (minus-1.1) by any American League or National League team since 1901. Limiting the scope to last season, the Nationals’ total was significantly lower than the next-worst club’s (the Oakland Athletics at 3.5). WAR aims to summarize total contributions to a club in one statistic. It’s not a perfect measurement, but it is good for cross-league and historical comparisons — and for ones involving starting pitchers.
Jaffe predicts the Nationals’ rotation will have the second-best year-to-year improvement, mostly because there’s nowhere to go but up. But Washington has upgraded its staff while hoping Gore and Gray take significant leaps.
Williams, 30, arrived on a two-year, $13 million deal, the club’s biggest spend of the offseason. Last season, he was most valuable as a reliever for the Mets, logging a 2.47 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 51 innings. The Nationals, though, offered the chance to start full-time again, which could attract suitors at either of the next two trade deadlines.
“I mean, results are always good,” Williams said Saturday. “But at this point it’s: Am I executing the right pitches in the right spots? Am I able to sequence correctly? ... It’s always an interesting matchup this late in spring training with division rivals, because you don’t want to tip your hand too much.”
Last April, the Nationals’ Opening Day rotation was Corbin, Gray, Erick Fedde, Joan Adon and Aníbal Sánchez, who injured his neck on the plane ride from spring training and was quickly replaced by Josh Rogers. Adon was sent down in June with a 1-11 record and a 6.97 ERA. Fedde was non-tendered and is now pitching in South Korea. Sánchez, 39, is a free agent if he wants to keep pitching. Corbin and Gray finished in the bottom 10 in ERA among pitchers who threw at least 130 innings.
Kuhl, 30, had the second-highest ERA behind Corbin (5.72 with the Colorado Rockies to Corbin’s 6.31). Washington hopes that can partly be explained by the pitching conditions at Coors Field. Kuhl had a strong first half, lost his mechanics and dealt with a hip injury, ultimately leading to bloated numbers in July, August and September.
At times last season, the Nationals’ rotation was a safety hazard for a bullpen that was woefully overworked but still fared well in the second half. What they need then, maybe more than anything, is durability and innings from whoever starts. That’s why Kuhl’s 137 innings in 2022 caught their attention on the minor league market.
“That’s my main goal: to eliminate walks, to eliminate long counts,” he said Sunday of going deep in games. “To have an outing like today, where ... you can’t make them swing, but you can make those kind of decisions, be in the zone, have really good, effective pitches in the zone.”
Note: The Nationals added Ricky Gutiérrez to the major league staff as run prevention coordinator. A former major league infielder and Martinez’s teammate on the 2000 Chicago Cubs, Gutiérrez will work with infielders on fundamentals and positioning during games.
Before officially joining the staff this past weekend, Gutiérrez had been a special assistant in operations since the start of the 2022 season. Before that, he was in player development with the Cincinnati Reds, making Martinez feel he could be an important voice for young infielders such as Luis García and Abrams, plus other players on the club. Gutiérrez is expected to be in uniform and in the dugout during the regular season.