It wasn’t all that long ago when the Washington Nationals had one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball. Spearheaded by future Hall-of-Famer Max Scherzer, the Nationals also boasted the excellent-when-healthy Stephen Strasburg and the dependable workhorse Patrick Corbin. Together, those three formed a powerhouse rotation, culminating in a World Series championship in 2019. Since then, the wheels have fallen apart.
Strasburg has struggled to stay healthy, a recurring theme in his career, and Corbin has trended backwards. Scherzer stayed his normal self, but sensing a Nationals team destined to fall backwards, Scherzer agreed to a trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2021 trade deadline season. Now the Nationals are stuck. Strasburg and Corbin are locked into ugly contracts, and the rest of the rotation hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. However, things might not be all that grim in Washington for long, thanks to a trio of intriguing pitching prospects.
Washington made right-hander Cade Cavalli the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 draft, and it’s easy to see why. The University of Oklahoma product oozes with potential despite being rather new to pitching. Cavalli entered college as a two-way player, but focused on pitching as a sophomore and immediately his stuff ticked up.
Cavalli brings four above-average pitches to the mound. He has sound mechanics and repeats his delivery well, allowing him to generate plus velocity on his fastball. Sitting in the mid-90s and reaching as high as 99 mph, Cavalli blows hitters away with ease and generates a ton of strikeouts. His off-speed offerings aren’t any easier to hit either. Cavalli throws a mid-80s curveball with a sharp bite to it, making hitters look silly. Cavalli also brings an upper-80s changeup and upper-80s slider, both of which have above-average potential but still need some refining.
Despite not pitching at all during the truncated 2020 season, Cavalli reached Triple-A in his first professional season in 2021, a sign of Washington’s faith in the young right-hander. The Nationals have a solid track record of developing pitchers, and all signs point to Cavalli emerging in the Nationals rotation sometime in 2022.
A year prior to Cavalli’s selection, Washington made the towering Jackson Rutledge the 17th overall selection in the 2019 draft. Rutledge, standing at a hulking 6’8″, followed a different path from Cavalli. Starring at San Jacinto College in Texas, Rutledge utterly dominated his competition, pitching to a 0.87 ERA with 134 strikeouts in just 82.2 innings during his 2019 season, en route to him becoming one of the highest junior college selections ever in an MLB draft.
Rutledge’s frame provides a bit of deception when he’s on the mound. Most would think his large body would provide a lot of velocity, and while his fastball does touch the mid-90s, he actually combines high spin rates and plus command to get hitters out. Rutledge’s slider rates as his best secondary offering by far, starting off strong before darting away quickly. His changeup induces a lot of weak contact and has good potential. Rutledge’s curveball is more of a pitch in his arsenal than it is an actual weapon at this stage, but Washington is confident that Rutledge can unlock its potential.
Rutledge started his professional career with a bang, posting a 3.13 ERA over 10 starts in 2019. He pitched well at Washington’s development camp in 2020 but was hampered by injuries in 2021. His overall numbers left a lot to be desired but made important strides in developing his repertoire. A strong 2022 season could end with Rutledge contributing in the majors.
The farthest away of the three prospects, the Nationals signed Andry Lara of out Venezuela during the 2019 international free agency period. It is common for a younger international prospect, especially for Lara who was only 16 at the time of his signing, to play in international summer leagues for a few seasons before coming stateside to play. So it may come as a surprise to see Lara making his stateside debut at just 18 years old. But Washington has a generally successful track record of aggressively pushing international talent, think Juan Soto for example.
Lara entered Washington’s system as an intriguing but very raw talent. The Nationals have done a lot of work refining his mechanics and things have progressed well. Lara’s delivery is fairly simple, and he’s able to repeat it with ease. At still just 18, Lara’s body is still growing, which is likely to lead to increased velocity on his offerings. Lara’s fastball currently sits in the mid-90s with good spin, and could reasonably improve to upper-90s with great spin. Lara has tinkered with an off-speed pitch that shares characteristics with both a curve and a slider, but is beginning to lead more into slider territory. Lara has also begun to work on a changeup, but that is in the early stages of development.
Lara has dealt with control problems in the early stages of his career, but Washington feels that can be attributed to a teenager starting his career in the midst of a pandemic. And by the end of the 2021 season, Lara had begun to generate more strikeouts and limit his walks, encouraging signs for an already hyped teenager. Lara still has a lot of development left, but could reasonably be contributing in the majors by late 2023, where hopefully Cavalli and Rutledge are already present.
World Series hangover is a real thing, and it hit the Nationals hard. To go from an all-time core of Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and other contributors, to a last place finish in a very winnable NL East is a tough pill to swallow. Luckily for Nationals fans, help is on the way. Banking on prospects to immediately contribute is a tough sell, but Washington is one of the better franchises in the game at developing pitching. Should fans expect an immediate World Series push with Cavalli, Rutledge and Lara? No, but instead as another potential rotation monster to build your team around. Couple that with some already present veterans on the roster, and Washington could be in for a quick turnaround.