Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Your 2024 AAA Rotation Revealed Early?


Thaddeus Ward should get stretched out in Rochester this year. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On March 11th, all on the same day, the Nats optioned the following arms to AAA:

  • Cole Henry
  • Mitchell Parker
  • DJ Herz
  • Thaddeus Ward
  • Joan Adon

If this was a Jeopardy answer, the question would be, “What is, the Rochester 2024 opening day rotation for $100, Alex?”

(Note: Adon’s option confirmed his previously unknown “4th option,” given for reasons unknown. Maybe its because he was so young when added. He doesn’t seem to have missed enough time in any season since he got added in Nob 2020 to qualify per the previously understood rules. Beats me. It works to our favor absolutely, in that we get one more season to see if he can turn into something useful).

Now, odds are that at least one or two more starters will be joining the party in AAA, including one Jackson Rutledge, which would push one of these guys out, presuming Rochester is doing a 5-man rotation. The only other 40-man starters still on the active spring training MLB roster (Strasburg and Cavalli) both should be getting sent to the 60-day DL soon.

Plus, we still have two veteran NRI MLFAs in camp in Spencer Watkins and Zach Davies who could stick around, but neither of these guys are going to supplant the progress of the above five arms. My guess would be that the team retains one of Watkins or Davies, pushes Ward and Henry to AA as starters, then your AAA rotation is Parker, Herz, Adon, Rutledge and Watkins/Davies.

Of course, this also overloads AA, who (according to big board right now) already has 4 starters in Luckham, Saenz, Alvarez, and Cuevas. So we’ll see.

More to the point, for the first time in a while the AAA rotation looks like it’s mostly home-grown, actual prospects instead of being filled with 30-something MLFAs. Here’s a quick look going backwards a few years at the opening day AAA rotations:

  • 2023: Adon, Irvin, Espino, Abbott, Peralta; That’s 2 prospects, two MLFAs/Waiver claims, and one org guy
  • 2022: Tetreault, Sanchez, Cavalli, Reyes, JRodriguez. That’s one prospect, one rehab guy, and three org guys.
  • 2021: Nolin, Fuentes, Braymer, JRodriguez, Armenteros: that’s three org guys and two MLFAs.
  • 2020: Covid
  • 2019: McGowin, Copeland, Voth, Espino, Dragmire: that’s one prospect, one org guy, and three MLFAs.
  • 2018: Voth, Milone*, Fedde, EJackson, Vargas: that’s 3 prospects and two MLFAs.
  • 2017: JRoss, Turner, THill, Voth, Cole: finally back to a time when we had mostly prospects: this is 4 prospects and one MLFA in Turner.

We’ll see what 2024 starts with but it could be 4 prospects and a MLFA, or possibly even 5 prospects. And with the planned rise of AA’s stars to AAA this year, we’re not dependent on a gazillion retreads to fill the field either.

Written by Todd Boss

March 15th, 2024 at 11:43 am

10 Responses to 'Your 2024 AAA Rotation Revealed Early?'

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  1. I’m all for giving Henry the chance to be a starter but think they have to be cautious with his innings. since I also think it’s starter or nothing for Adon I’d use Henry as an opener at first and plan on Adon coming in after the scheduled number of pitches for him. this keeps both on a starters schedule and prep and also takes up only one spot.


    16 Mar 24 at 10:50 am

  2. I don’t know whether Davies would accept a minor-league gig. I certainly would be helpful to the depth if he would.

    The club seems determined that Trevor Williams is still a starter, so it seems that we should count on Rutledge being at Rochester. (I’m still not convinced that Rutledge is an MLB starter, but the only way to find out is to let him be an MLB starter. We already know the answer to that question about Williams.)

    A larger question is whether some of these AAA guys should be made into relievers. The logical answer is “yes,” but the Nats of the past decade-plus have resisted at all costs turning any of their better arms into relievers.

    All in all, this is an interesting crop. No doubt that Henry, Parker, Herz, Ward, and Adon (and Rutledge) all have some promise, but I wouldn’t place a bet of any consequence on any of them actually making it as an MLB starter.

    One of the core questions of the rebuild is whether the Nats have enough high-quality pitching. We’ll find out a lot about that this summer on Half Street and in Upstate NY. My suspicion is that they don’t and that they’ll have to sign or trade at least one or quality arms to get back to being able to compete. But I’d be glad for them to prove me wrong.


    16 Mar 24 at 12:56 pm

  3. Now would be a good time to make a long overdue conversion to relief. Adon would be the most natural fit (though I would argue a couple guys in the rotation in DC would make sense as well). This will be the 4th season in AAA, and he’s yet to have an impressive period. It seems to me that he’s had and failed with his chances, so let’s see if there’s some value with him in relief, but it wouldn’t be the first (or 20th) time the Nats waited too long to make such a move.

    But beyond Adon, even Henry’s injury issues, he was already a doubt to stick as a starter. If they determine that TOC was so risky that using him relief would subject his arm to less stress, I’d understand. Then in a similar vein, Parker and Herz have too been projected to be relievers with their command issues. I think it’s too early, especially for Herz, to make that move, but if there’s too many bodies, it wouldn’t surprise me if they eventually experiment with Parker in relief.

    More likely, I think Fred is right and Henry’s workload will have to be strictly managed, and even if they see his future as a starter, they may still use him in relief this season, just to build him up to 60 IP (he’s never in the minors or college exceeded 58 IP in a season!), and even then he starts the season in AA. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Ward start the season there. He’s only thrown 52 IP at AA, and never in AAA. Then I suspect by late April, the depth issues will have worked themselves out, as at least one arm will be injured and a few more will have been shelled, forcing some moves.

    Still, it’s a nice “problem” to have!


    17 Mar 24 at 11:18 am

  4. If it were me, I’d have the starters from last year’s Dominican League team pitching on the shores of Lake Ontario in April. I hate having to expose any of our legit “prospect” arms to those conditions, Henry in particular.

    If Henry can ever get fully back up to speed, I feel like he has the pitch arsenal to be a starter. His AA numbers in 2022 at age 22 were off-the-charts good. He hasn’t been healthy since then.


    17 Mar 24 at 8:55 pm

  5. these are all wise comments about these arms and whether they can stay starters. Indeed, we’ve waited so, so long to experiment with some long-serving prospect arms in relief (AJ cole, Austin Voth) only to watch them go elsewhere with success.

    Of the (now 6) starters in AAA … The most likely to go to relief seem to be (in order) Rutledge, Henry, Adon, then Ward, then Parker and Herz. I’m not saying Parker/Herz are “better” … just that as lefties, there’s more need.

    – Rutledge: seems like a 2 pitch guy right now. he’s big, he can throw hard, he makes sense as an 8th inning guy.
    – Adon: we’re in year 4 of “the Adon” experience and i’m just not seeing any improvement. If you can’t get guys out in the 2nd or 3rd time through the rotaiton, then make a change.
    – Henry: health driven reliever, not stuff-driven. Would love to see him as a 160ip starter, but that seems like a pipedream. maybe he’s one of these enw wave Josh Hader multi-inning guys with unhittable stuff
    – Ward: he was not good in relief last year, but has historically been dominant as a starter all the way up to AA. He’s 27 now, probably not happy about being 27 and in AAA, but he knows how to get back.
    – Parker: I like him, but have a hard time seeing him making it as a starter. I can see him as a reliever soon.
    – Herz: best chance for making it as a starter.

    Todd Boss

    18 Mar 24 at 11:53 am

  6. I mostly agree with Todd’s list above, with two exceptions.

    One, given the fact that Rutledge made great strides in development just last season (with a lower ERA and FIP in AA at 24 than he had in low-A at 23), I think you need to give him another season as a starter to see if he has still more runway to improve. So I’d rank him between Henry and Ward.

    And two, the only one on this list that I’ve mostly given up on as a starter is Adon. But he also might be the best of the bunch in terms of spot starting right now. So I think I disagree with the main thesis that we should be pushing these folks to reliever roles. (Even if I agree that each is likely to fail as a starter — like most pitching prospects, of course.)

    I’d keep Adon as a starter until/unless he’s below 7th on the ML depth chart. And all the rest of them, I think need at least another year before you evaluate. (With the possible exception of Henry – I leave him to the doctors and coaches. There’s information that we don’t have for all these guys, but for Henry that stuff is whole ballgame. So I don’t even want to guess.)


    18 Mar 24 at 1:21 pm

  7. I’m really beginning to think that the future of major-league pitching is going to involve teams pairing two guys who can go three or four innings apiece to make up at least two or three of the slots in the rotation. The Rays have been doing something like that for a while now, and several teams resorted to something similar during the playoffs, more out of necessity than design. The Scherzers of the world who can go seven or eight innings are becoming dinosaurs.

    All of the guys we’re discussing would be ideal for a three-inning role, as would Corbin and Williams, and eventually a rehabbing Cavalli. Maybe they could throw three innings every fourth day. But I think within the next five years, teams will be allowed to carry more than 13 arms. There’s just nothing close to the 150 good “starting pitchers” needed to stock 30 rotations across the majors.

    I’ve been high on Henry since he was drafted, but I’ve begun to fear that he’s the new Christian Garcia, just never going to be able to get healthy enough to fulfill the considerable promise.

    Parker in particular has so much lefty funk in his delivery that I can see him sticking around the majors as a reliever for many years, if he can throw enough strikes. He did during the spring training games and showed well. His velo isn’t that high, but his deception is off the charts.


    18 Mar 24 at 5:30 pm

  8. future of pitching. I’ve done some thought on this topic, wondering if starters are eventually going to be eliminated from the game and I just can’t see it.

    Consider: 162 games, 9 IP per game (before extras) = 1,458 innings. 13 man staffs: if you just divide that evenly, that’s 112 innings per pitcher. The only guys on our staff who threw more than 112 innings last year? Starters. Our busiest reliever was finnegan: 67 games, 69 innings. Most of our relievers were in this same vein; 1 inning guys about every third game. You’d need multiple guys to go 2-3 innings every other game to make a staff work w/o starters to bear the load.

    Tuesday: Pitchers 1,2,3 each go 3 innings, plus pitcher4 to get one of them out of a jam.
    Wednesday: Pitchers 5,6,7,8 do 2 or 3 innings each.
    Thurs: pitchers 9,10,11 each go 3 innings, but you need another reliever so you go with 4 for an inning.
    Fri: pitchers 12,13,1,2; so now you start to see the cycle: pitchers 1,2 each threw 3 innings and have three days rest. they can probably do that, but they’re going to be less effective
    Sat: Pitchers 3,4,5 try to go 3 innings, need relievers; but now #4 is burned so you pull in #6.
    Sun: pitchers 7,8, go, but 9-11 is on two days rest, 12,13,1,2 on one day’s rest. Maybe you pull in #4 but that’s 3 outings in a week for #4.
    Mon: day off … which helps the staff of course, but you can start to see that even after a week of this cycle, there’s some stress.

    Now consider this: a MLB pitching staff gets exhausted even now, with starters going 5-6 innings. If any of the 3-inning guys gets lit up, you have very little coverage capabilities to bail them out and soak up innings, lest you basically crush the rest of the cycle.

    Todd Boss

    19 Mar 24 at 9:11 am

  9. Todd, you’re ignoring the farm system from your analysis. There are 13 more arms you can draw on in AAA, and another 13+ in AA.

    The Rays, for example, used 40 different pitchers last season, and won 99 games doing so, and posted a team ERA of 3.86 (compare this to the pretty garbage pitching staff of the Nats and their 5.02 ERA and 28 pitchers). Only 1 of those 40 exceeded 120 IP. Furthermore, 17 pitchers started a game for them, but only one started more than 21 games. They make extensive use of their farm system to expand their roster, and regularly trade away players reaching free agency/exhausting their options, for this reason. The Dodgers did something similar, using 39 pitchers, a collective 4.06 ERA, and no single pitcher exceeding 131 IP.

    The Dodgers and Rays are typically considered two of the most creative orgs in baseball (and also most successful), while the Nats’ GM is giving interviews in 2024 about the club’s coaches beginning to come around to the use of data… so even if this does become the predominant model in MLB, you can rest assured as long as Rizzo is GM, we’ll continue to do things the way they’ve always been done, even if we have a pitching staff ideally suited for some outside-the-box thinking.


    19 Mar 24 at 11:34 am

  10. I think stacking backend starters would actually reduce the innings needed per remaining bullpen pitcher. A pitcher who averaged 3 innings an outing, and pitched in 30 games, would have pitched more innings than any relief pitcher in the majors last year. As Todd notes, even averaging 2 innings per outing would rank them as among the most productive.

    The downside is reduced flexibility. That’s one fewer slot for situational matchups or, I think more importantly, to cover for folks who aren’t available on any given day. And any teams’ 4th through 7th starters aren’t going to be great pitchers, so there are still going to be some starts where the bullpen would have to cover 5 or 6 innings, and maybe only having 7 or even 6 arms available would make the team more susceptible to being overtaxed.

    I do think it needs to be personnel dependent. If you have an ace or two, you should be thinking “how can I get them to pitch as many innings as they can without undue injury risk”. If you have a clear top 4 rotation who can reliably go 6+, go ahead and throw a bullpen game every 5th day. Maybe stream AAA starters and long relief guys to fill in as needed. But if you have a lot of mediocre starters, stacking the backend guys makes a lot of sense to me.

    (Also, it’s a small thing, but you actually skip more 9th innings than you have to pitch extras, especially with the new rules. No team pitched more than 1456 last year and the average was only 1436. You need to average just over 110 innings per roster slot.)


    19 Mar 24 at 12:21 pm

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