When Mike Rizzo met with reporters last week, the Washington Nationals general manager boasted that the team’s prospects group is the best the team has ever had. And while much of that talent is still far from debuting in the major leagues, there are exceptions — starting with the trio of talented young arms expected to serve as the foundation of the starting rotation this season.
Veterans Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams are part of the picture, but the focus this summer will be on the development of Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli — a group that Rizzo sees as key to the future of the franchise.
“It kind of mirrors what we did back in ‘09, ‘10 and ‘11,” Rizzo said. “When you establish yourself with some good, reliable, durable starting pitching and you develop, you get yourself some homegrown prospects, you see more guys coming, and then usually your payroll is at a point where you can go and add in that direction down the road.
“And that’s kind of how we built this thing back in the day, and I don’t see us veering off that road map right now.”
For that map to lead to a successful destination, Gray, Gore and Cavalli have to prove they’re both reliable and durable. Last year, Gore and Cavalli had their seasons cut short by injuries, while Gray went through growing pains in his first full season as a starter before Washington shut him down in September as a precaution to rest his arm.
But the upside for each of the three remains high.
Gore and Gray, sent to the Nationals as part of the Juan Soto and Max Scherzer trades, were the sixth- and 58th-ranked prospects by MLB Pipeline in 2021, respectively. Cavalli, the Nationals’ first-round pick in 2020, was recently ranked as the 58th-best prospect in baseball and was rated last year as Washington’s fourth-best prospect.
In terms of performing in the majors, Gore perhaps got off to the best start of the three. With San Diego, the 23-year-old lefty finished with a 4.50 ERA in 16 games (13 starts), but posted a 1.50 ERA through his first nine games. Gore’s numbers fluctuated in part because of an elbow injury that also factored into the Nationals’ opting not to call him up to the big leagues last season. Rizzo, though, has said he doesn’t view Gore’s elbow as an issue and Gore has said he’s now fully healthy.
Gray, by contrast, got valuable experience in 2022 by pitching 148⅓ innings — even if his stats weren’t great on the surface. The 25-year-old gave up the most homers in MLB (38) and surrendered the most walks (66) in the National League to finish with a 5.02 ERA. Still, Gray reportedly made changes to his mechanics and the Nationals remain high on him.
“This year he gets a chance to go out and prove that not only does he belong here, but now he can go out and dominate this league,” manager Dave Martinez said on MASN of Gray.
Cavalli may have the most to prove of the three in 2023. The 24-year-old made just one start — a disappointing one, at that, with seven earned runs in 4⅓ innings — for the Nationals last summer before landing on the injured list with a shoulder injury. Martinez said Cavalli would have to earn his spot in the rotation in spring training, noting the 24-year-old could be Washington’s fourth or fifth starter.
Cavalli also insisted to reporters that he’s now healthy. Cavalli has been rated as Washington’s top pitching prospect in the past because of his 6-foot-4 size and a fastball that can reach up to 100 mph.
At one point during his session with reporters, Rizzo mentioned how Washington’s first rebuild was helped by the development of pitching stars like Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman. And throughout Rizzo’s tenure as general manager, his teams have often prioritized developing and finding top-tier arms.
The likely hope now for the Nationals is that Gore, Gray and Cavalli improve enough so that when Washington’s other star prospects — outfielders James Wood, Elijah Green and Robert Hassell III, among them — eventually get ready to make their jumps to the majors, the rotation is strong enough to hit the ground running.
“You see what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Rizzo said. “I think that will be the first rung on the ladder to get back to the championship.”