Davey Martinez talked late in the 2023 campaign about conversations he had with opposing teams’ personnel eager for information on how the Nationals managed to get through their season using just eight starting pitchers.
They got the majority of their starts from five pitchers (Patrick Corbin, 32; Josiah Gray, 30; Trevor Williams, 30; MacKenzie Gore, 27; and Jake Irvin, 24), with three more pitchers (Joan Adon, 10; Chad Kuhl, 5; and Jackson Rutledge, 4), taking the ball the rest of the outings.
“I’ve had so many people ask me already, ‘Man, how did you manage going through a year with only seven starters?’” Martinez told reporters (before Rutledge came up to make it eight). “And I just laugh, I don’t want to give away anything. But I said part of it is the players buying in to what they need to do in-between starts. Maintaining their strength, their mechanics. [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey working with them every day on just keeping their mechanics as clean as possible. Strength coaches and all that stuff, and obviously we went to that six-man rotation, which definitely helped, and which in the future is probably something we’re really going to look at.
“But with all that said, I’m proud of these guys. [We were] monitoring everything they did every day, and making sure they got in there. There were some days where we had to force them to do the work, but they did it, and it worked out well for all these guys.”
Martinez said the fact they used as few starters as they did was even more impressive given the injury histories of some of the pitchers.
“We’ve had a lot of guys — you think about Jake Irvin, what he’s been through, MacKenzie, Josiah had shoulder issues, so for us it was definitely a plus to see these guys go out there and compete every 5-6-7 days, whatever it was. And do fairly well. They all exceeded our expectations as far as health, there definitely is room for improvement, but I can see that coming.”
He can, Martinez said, also see a future rotaion in D.C., in which 2020 1st Round pick Cade Cavalli (who underwent Tommy John surgery last spring) and Rutledge (their 2019 1st rounder) are both playing a bigger role.
“Yeah, looks pretty good. I like it, yeah,” he beamed. “I can see our youth right now and what we could possibly be looking at here in the future, and I love it, you know. And like I said, they’re young and they’re learning, and we still got a little ways to go, but for the most part they’re eager to learn and they’re all doing well.”
While they survey the market for trades or free agents this offseason, Martinez was asked during the Winter Meetings last week, how are they thinking about the balance between letting their young pitchers continue to grow while getting some stability from veterans, whether it be Corbin and Williams again or potential additions? Would the Nationals consider adding starters given what they have in-house?
“[GM Mike Rizzo], he’s a competitor and he wants to win games,” Martinez said.
“We could add another starting pitcher in that mix. But it will definitely help us develop our younger players, younger pitchers as well.
“But I want to see our young pitchers pitch. Some of these guys got a year under their belts, some of them have three quarters of a year under their belt. I want to see what they can do coming out of Spring Training.
“As you know, we did some different things as far as limiting their innings, we went to a six-man rotation to keep them fresh, knowing that, hey, we’re trying to take care of them for the future.
“So I want to see them grow, though. I want to see them compete. So this to me is going to be an interesting Spring Training to see how they bounce back from last year, because a lot of them did pitch a lot. We had some guys that were injured before, and they made it through last year. So this year will be critical.
“But, yeah, I’ll take a good quality starter anytime.”
“I think we’ll be careful,” Rizzo said of how the club plans to handle their young starters in 2024 when he spoke his own media availability at the Winter Meetings.
MacKenzie Gore, Dirty 86mph Curveball...and Sword ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/u9UuQTdf4D— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 18, 2023
“We’re always careful. But we’re going to take the reins off them a little bit this year. We were careful with them last year, we really handled all of them with kid gloves. It was testament to the two veterans — Trevor [Williams] who hasn’t pitched that many innings in years, and took the ball every fifth or sixth day when we needed him to, and Patrick [Corbin]. I think this year we’re going to let the reins loose a little bit on those guys. We’ve got some good depth in the minor leagues, which we really haven’t had that much in the past, and I think that learning on the job in the big leagues is not easy. I think you saw some progress with those pitchers last year, and hopefully all those guys take another step in their progression and we can backfill with some of our own prospects from the minors to the big leagues.”
Both the manager and GM were asked how Williams, who signed a 2-year/$13M free agent deal with the club last winter, fits into the plans after he returned to starting full-time with what could politely be called mixed results (5.55 ERA, 5.98 FIP, NL-leading 34 home runs allowed, and a .300/.359/.533 line against in 144 1⁄3 IP).
“Right now, Trevor’s — he’s our fourth, fifth starter. We’ll see what transpires over the winter,” Martinez said.
“We’re going to go with the best five starting pitchers,” Rizzo said when he was asked if there’s a scenario in which Williams serves as a long reliever as he did the previous few seasons before signing on in D.C.
“If he’s one of those five, then he’ll start. And if he’s not, he’s shown the capabilities of being a swingman, a multi-inning reliever, a multi-day-in-a-row reliever, and just a workhorse. I don’t want to shortchange what he did for this team last year, taking the ball for so many innings and so many starts last year when he hadn’t done it in years. That was, in my mind, very team-orientated and very unselfish of him, and I thought he did a great job for us in that regard.”
While Rizzo said the best five will be in the rotation, considering how things worked out with a six-man rotation late this past season, would they consider doing it again?
“We already talked about it,” Martinez said.
“I looked at the schedule, fortunately we got a lot of days off in the beginning. We do have a couple of stretches where we play 17 in a row, 15 in a row.
“So we might incorporate a six-man rotation during that time.”
In addition to Williams’ efforts, Corbin gave the Nationals the 32 starts and 180 innings (over which he had a 5.20 ERA, a 5.28 FIP, 57 walks (2.85 BB/9), 124 Ks (6.20 K/9), a .293/.344/.481 line against, and 33 home runs allowed in 180 IP (1.65 HR/9)). So where does he fit in going into the final year of his 6-year/$140M deal, after struggling to find his 2018-2019 form over the last four seasons?
“Hey, look, I seen a lot of upside last year with Corbin,” Martinez said. “The record doesn’t indicate, I know his ERA didn’t indicate it. But this guy takes the ball every five days, doesn’t complain, and he gives us the innings we need. We were able to develop our younger players because he could do the things that he did and he gives our bullpen a breather.
“So when I look back at some of the past year, it typically is one inning where he kind of loses things.
“If we can get him to get rid of that one winning, he’s going to do big things for us, he really is.
“I know that he’s working hard already. He’s down in Florida, so hopefully he comes back and he has a year that we know he’s capable of having, the year that he gave us in 2019.”