Washington Nationals swing into their spring season

Justin Glenn, Sports Editor

A pivotal year in the Washington Nationals’ rebuild centered around youth and development has welded a 17-23 record as of May 15th. The young roster has lacked consistent offensive production as development continues, with all signs pointing towards the future prospect pipeline. Otherwise known as the “farm system.” The glimpse of the future is headlined by outfielders Robert Hassell III, James Wood, Elijah Green, and newly converted third baseman Brady House, who have all been elevating across the minor league levels.

An essential piece to winning in baseball is fundamentals. From pitching mechanics, to finding consistent stride in the batter box, while getting hits and being able to play good defense.. all can translate to winning success. Some ways to define batting production involve batting average (BA), or the percentage of at bats a player gets a hit, along with runs allowed(ERA), or batted in (RBIs), the number “points’’ a player’s at bat is responsible for. 

The starting pitching rotation is led by left-handed pitchers 11-year veteran Patrick Corbin, and 24-year-old MacKenzie Gore. 25-year-old Josiah Gray, rookie Jake Irvin, and veteran Trevor Williams make up the right-handed pitchers, all combined currently for 4.4 runs given up on average, to round out the rotation.

One of the biggest bright spots from the Nationals starting rotation has been the left-hander Gore finding extensive success with 51 strikeouts. Opponents are batting .252 against the lefty, and with a 3-2 record, he has accumulated the most wins out of all five starters. In his first full season as a National, the Willmington, North Carolina native has responded well to early season expectations, with an individual earned run average of 3.29. 

In his best start since the 2019 season, the left-hander Corbin in a May 3rd matchup against the Chicago Cubs went seven innings with six strikeouts, lowering his season’s earned run average (ERA) to 4.87. The veteran along with the rookie Irvin, and Gray remain the only Nats starters to reach seven innings in one start.

Also against the Cubs(19-21), 26-year-old right-hander Jake Irvin made his MLB debut in the fifth slot of Manager Davey Martinez’s rotation. The Nats’ 20th ranked prospect has impressed in recent games against the New York Mets, only allowing 12 hits with an ERA of 4.11 in three career starts. 

Gray and Williams at 2.96 and 4.25 have struggled with run support, and executing outs in crucial middle inning situations. The performances on the mound aren’t solely the issue, it’s the inability to piece together winning baseball from the surrounding pieces. Gray currently has a 3-5 record overall, and Williams, a 1-1 record with six no-decision starts this year. 

Veteran right-hander Chad Kuhl was named the placeholder for Nationals fourth ranked prospect Cade Cavalli. Struggling with an earned run average of 9.41 and not being able to piece together a solid outing, Kuhl has only thrown 22 innings across five total starts on the mound.  Unfortunately, the 30-year-old is dealing with right foot metatarsalgia, sidelining him from current games. Entering the year as the replacement fifth starter, that spot has now been replaced twice in 40 games.

Kuhl’s stay could be in jeopardy with his duties being turned over to the rookie Irvin who has impressed. Kuhl made the roster as a non-camp invitee during spring training back in March, after Cavalli sprained his ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm, resulting in Tommy John surgery. A short-lived tenure for Kuhl could be a reality. 

While pitching has improved, the roster has taken shape with grit, scrappiness, and resilience as essential traits that have formed wins. 

Off-season veteran acquisitions of former St. Louis Cardinal, left fielder Corey Dickerson, primary first baseman Dominic Smith from the New York Mets, and third baseman Jemier Candelario via the Detroit Tigers, have provided this roster with savvy veteran play and guidance within the clubhouse. 

Unfortunately for Dickerson, a trip to the injury list has become a reality due to a calf strain, after only playing in two games.  

Smith is batting .263, alongside 36 hits, eight RBIs, and a homerun. Candelario has 31 hits and is tied for the team lead with four home runs, while sporting a .211 average. Both players who are on 1-year deals, have shown consistency manning the infield corners on defense. The supporting duo has catered to cornerstone 22-year olds shortstop C.J. Abrams and second baseman Luis García, who have been highlighted for their improved defensive play in the middle infield. For the young pair, fluctuating performances batting have led to early woes, but in recent games have found success. Abrams is currently hitting .250, and Garcia is at .265, both will continue to improve with more at-bats further down the schedule. 

In the outfield, Victor Robles, has showcased encouraging signs as the center fielder is batting a career best .292, but has dealt with back spasms, giving an opportunity to utility man Jake Alu, batting .111. The right fielder, Lane Thomas, has put together a solid campaign hitting .272, with 40 base hits, four home runs, and 18 RBIs.

Making the most out of their opportunities are outfielders Alex Call and Stone Garrett. Both can play anywhere beyond the infield, but have found stride alternating in left field for the injured Dickerson. After a strong spring training for the tandem, both are seizing their current window of opportunity earning more playing time, with Call getting at bats occasionally at leadoff hitting .235, and Garrett at .266.

Catcher Keibert Ruiz, coming off an 8-year extension, has flourished. He currently has one home run and a .248 batting average. With a franchise catcher, limited opportunities is the unlucky circumstance for backup Riley Adams, who has improved vastly batting .192. In his third year, the 26-year-old only gets the nod behind the diamond whenever Ruiz needs a day off, on an early “get away” game every 3 to 4 days.  

Although he’s 30-years old, designated hitter Joey Meneses in his second year has only helped this ballclub trend upwards. His 47 base hits currently leads the team, and he has also accounted for 18 runs batted in, being one of the brightest Nationals bats each game.  

Before returning to the nation’s capital, the bullpen drew a huge question mark, as 8 slots needed to be filled out before departing from spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida.  Throughout the first portion of the season, the bullpen has been the evident strength of the team with Carl Edwards Jr., Hobie Harris, Hunter Harvey, Andrés Machado, Mason Thompson, Erasmo Ramírez, Thaddeus Ward, and temporary closer Kyle Finnegan keeping this ballclub in games. 

Most notably out of the ‘pen, the Round Rock, Texas native Thompson, has 21 strikeouts. He has given up 21 hits, but that comes with an astonishing 22.1 innings of work, as six of his appearances have accounted for two innings or more. He has showcased all-star potential so far with an ERA of 4.43, but a high usage rate is a risk, now settled into the late spring, early summer portion of the season. 

Another notable National bullpen name is the right-hander Hunter Harvey of Catawba County, North Carolina. Collecting his first career major league save on May 7th, the 28-year-old became the ninth father-son duo with his father[Bryan Harvey of the Los Angeles Angels, and Miami Marlins 1987-95] to collect an individual save. Expect Harvey to have numerous scenarios to close out games down the line, as he’s thrown strikes.. averaging 1.96 on the mound, collecting 20 strikeouts. 

While pulling the bulk of the weight, the bullpen is taxed with fluctuating performances from the starting rotation. Questionable decisions made by Manager Davey Martinez in terms of usage in different innings and certain situations has created difficulties in results. A glaring choice of pitching Kyle Finnegan three days in a row, just to place him in a closing scenario in a May 6th game against the Arizona Diamondbacks is an example. That decision created a bases loaded bottom of the 9th, after a home run given up to left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr, Finnegan then walked Arizona’s utility man Pavin Smith on a walkoff, leading to a Nationals loss.. 8-7. 

The bullpen has logged over 144 innings in relief outings.

Minor league baseball for the Nats could see changes depending on how the season progresses. Big-league call ups have come for Garrett, utility infielder Jeter Downs, and utility prospect Jake Alu. Truly depending on the win to loss ratio, under the radar names could be pitchers left-hander Jake Bennett, and right-hander Jackson Rutledge. 

Absent from the team, but on the injured list is third baseman Carter Kieboom, who is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. On a different timeline, but also recovering from the same surgery is right-hander Tanner Rainey, who remains sidelined. Left-hander Sean Doolittle, continues to build his way back from a partially torn UCL in his left elbow, with his return date nearing.

Viewing the road ahead, the Nats will host the Detroit Tigers (18-21), San Diego Padres (19-22), Philadelphia Phillies (20-20),the Diamondbacks (23-18), the Miami Marlins(20-21) for the next five series at home in Nationals Park. The road trip series are against the Kansas City Royals (12-30), Los Angeles Dodgers (26-15) Atlanta Braves (25-15), Houston Astros (21-19), and Padres.