Washington’s Nationals selected 26-year-old right-hander Thaddeus Ward from the Boston Red Sox with the first pick in the Rule 5 Draft last winter, taking a shot that the 5th Round draft pick from 2018, who was ranked 15th in the Sox’ system, could stick in the majors all year.
It was the first Rule 5 pick by the club in 12 years.
As per the rules of the Rule 5 Draft, teams which do select players, “… must pay $100,000 to the club from which said player was selected.”:
“Rule 5 Draft picks are assigned directly to the drafting club’s 26-man roster and must be placed on outright waivers in order to be removed from the 26-man roster in the subsequent season,” at which point, “… he must be offered back to his previous team for $50,000 and can be outrighted to the Minors only if his original club does not wish to reacquire him. A Rule 5 Draft pick can be placed on the Major League injured list, but he must be active for a minimum of 90 days to avoid being subject to the aforementioned roster restrictions in the next campaign.”
Ward underwent Tommy John surgery in 2021 but returned to the mound a year later and made 13 starts total in 2022, with a 2.28 ERA in 51 1⁄3 innings overall between Florida’s Complex League, A-ball, High-A, and Double-A in the Red Sox’ system. Ward then went out to the Arizona Fall League where he, “... posted a 2.84 ERA with 15 strikeouts in four games (three starts) during the [AFL] season,” as the Nationals noted in a press release on their Rule 5 selection.
“We kind of blended the upside of the pitcher with kind of the certainty of making it easier to carry the player throughout the season,” Rizzo explained when asked about the thinking behind taking Ward.
“We liked this player. We think he’s got more left in the tank. He’s a year farther removed from Tommy John surgery.”
“He has the ingredients to pitch in the big leagues,” Rizzo said. “He has four pitches that he can command. He’s a competitive guy. He’s a starting pitching candidate that we can stretch out and pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, and we feel comfortable with the fact that he’ll allow Davey [Martinez] to utilize him throughout the season and have a chance to keep him.”
While that was the plan to keep him up in the majors for the season, the long-term goal was to develop him as a potential part of the rotation.
“I don’t know what that will morph into,” Rizzo explained. “He’s been a starter in his career, but we kind of see him right now as a multi-inning relief pitcher.”
“We see him as a starting pitching candidate. That’s what he’s always been, that’s kind of how we like him. We’re not going to rule out anything. He’s going to come into Spring Training with the mindset that he’s going to pitch multiple innings, and we’ll kind of let it take itself from there.”
Ward made the Opening Day roster, but he was used sparingly, making just 14 appearances over the first two months of the 2023 campaign, though his manager said he was getting a lot of valuable experience in the process.
“You could look at it two ways,” Davey Martinez told reporters in late May. “He’s getting so much experience being up here in the major leagues. I think that’ll help him eventually. Yeah, we’d like to get him out there and get him more innings, but it’s difficult because of what he can do — what we’re allowing him to do. Right now, it hasn’t been comfortable throwing him two days in a row.
“When we do pitch him, we try to use him for multiple innings, and if we do that, you almost have to stay away from him for a couple days. We still got a long ways to go.
“And we don’t know what’s going to happen here nevertheless today but in the future. He’s got to stay ready.
“And I know he throws in-between quite a bit and he’s working on some stuff with [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey so he’s got to be ready at all times.”
The experience, Martinez said, was good for the young pitcher, even if he struggled at times in an unfamiliar role.
“For me, I’m trying to use him in situations where I feel like he’s going to succeed a little bit to get some confidence back,” Martinez explained.
“The biggest thing with him is keeping him healthy. He’s a guy that had arm issues before, first time ever pitching out of the bullpen, so getting him out there, getting him comfortable. We still view this guy as a potential starter for the future we really do.
“The good thing about Thad is that he’s a sponge, he absorbs everything, he’s trying to learn, he’s listening, he’s sitting in conversations, we talked to him a lot about just sitting in, listening to some of the starting pitchers’ conversations as well, not just the bullpen. I know you’re in the bullpen right now, but the biggest thing for me right now is working on throwing strikes, not being afraid to throw strikes, attacking hitters. His stuff is good. His stuff is really good, but he’s got to be in the strike zone.”
Ward made 22 appearances between April 1st and July 1st, struggling at times, with some flashes of potential, but overall rough numbers (a 7.12 ERA, a 6.92 FIP, 24 walks, (7.13 BB/9), 26 Ks (7.64 K/9), seven home runs allowed (1.78 HR/9) and a .234/.368/.451 line against in a total of 30 1⁄3 IP), before shoulder inflammation shut him down and landed him on the IL on July 3rd.
“I talked to him and asked if he was okay,” Martinez explained after the announced of the IL stint for Ward. “He did mention he felt a little stiff, more than usual. So to play it safe — he’s had arm issues before — we just said, ‘We’re just going to put you on the IL.’ He talked to [Director Athletic Training] Paul [Lessard]. He’s got a little bit of inflammation in his right shoulder, so he’ll get some time to kind of rehab and get him going again.”
Asked at the time if the IL stint might be a blessing in disguise, Martinez said you never want a player injured, but...
“I don’t ever want anybody going on the IL, but we can use it to his advantage, and our advantage as well to kind of get him going, get him right,” he said.
“And like I said, you can’t really know if it’s really affecting him until he has the time off and he comes back and we see how he’s doing then. So we’re going to use this time wisely.
“We’ll strengthen him again, get him strong, get that shoulder strong and then build him up again.”
“We got to remember too,” the manager added, “he was a starter when we got him.
“We tried to make him a long-guy here, so it’s hard, sometimes it’s hard to make that adjustment for young guys like him, especially the guys that had arm injuries, so we got to be really careful for him.
“I told him, ‘Hopefully in the future, when this is all said and done we might stretch you out again and try to make you a starter again, but for right now this is what your job is, and we want to make sure that one, you’re healthy, and two, that when you come in that you can do it, whether it’s every other day or every two days, but the main thing is getting him healthy.”
Ward too said he hoped to use the time rehabbing constructively.
“I took [Tommy John] as a positive to clean up a lot of other health stuff, like how I treated my body and eating the right way and all that kind of stuff,” Ward told MLB.com.
“This is just another opportunity to kind of work on a lot of different things and kind of clean up some things that need to be worked on.”
He didn’t return to the mound in game action until mid-August, making six starts across three different minor league affiliates in the Nationals’ system before he returned to the majors in mid-September and resumed pitching in a long-relief role.
“Right now he’s going to be a long guy,” Martinez said at the time.
“There could be a possibility depending on where we’re at with with some of our starters that we slip him in one day to get him a start, he was doing that down there [at Triple-A].”
The focus over the last few weeks, Martinez said, was simple, getting Ward back to strike-throwing.
“For me it’s two things. One, it’s to keep everything simple. And that’s kind of what we told him when he went down there [on his rehab assignment]. ‘We know who you are. There’s reasons why we liked you and we drafted [you]. So just kind of get back to those things. And don’t worry about trying to focus on things that right now that you can try these things in the winter time, but right now when you come back I want to see you do the things that you’re capable of doing. And you were a strike-thrower.’
“That’s one of the things we loved about him, is he pounded the strike zone, he had a really good slider and a really good two-seamer, so let’s just try to get back to that.
“But throw strike one. The biggest thing for him is that he’s got to throw strikes.”
“It’s good to be back,” Ward told reporters, as quoted by MASN’s Bobby Blanco once he was back up with the big league club.
“I’m happy I’m back healthy, stronger. I cleaned some things up and I’m excited about what’s gonna happen here.”
He took advantage of the time in the minors to clean some things up mechanically that he thought would benefit him in the long-term:
“One of the things I needed to work on in terms of mechanically was kind of shortening up my arm path a little bit,” [Ward] said. “I had a tendency to stab down, and that’s just not very good. Nobody likes that. So working on cleaning that up, making sure I’m not stabbing and just kind of being smooth through the arm motion. So it’s one of the things I cleaned up and I’ve thrown a lot more strikes, getting ahead more often, kind of figuring out, well not figuring out, but kind of rediscovering who I am as a pitcher.”
“I got my confidence back a little bit,” he added. “Kind of going down and feeling more like myself again. Figuring out getting back to what made me a good pitcher to begin with. And a lot of that is just having to rediscover who I was as a pitcher. I kind of needed that. So it was good to have that kind of soul searching opportunity.”