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The future of the Nationals looks bright – and that also applies to their starting pitchers

Everyone wants a good starting lineup. But first you have to develop a good one.

This is what the Washington Nationals are doing right now, and much faster than expected.

Last season, the Nats’ rotation was abysmal, with a 5.02 ERA. This season, Jake Irvin, MacKenzie Gore and Mitchell Parker have a 3.10 ERA in 223⅔ innings in 40 starts, with 210 strikeouts and just 53 walks. Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer’s career ERAs: 3.24 and 3.15. They’re not. But I wanted to get your attention.

But Irvin, Gore and Parker could end up being just as good as Jordan Zimmermann, Gio González and Tanner Roark, who combined for 302 wins with a 3.86 ERA, four All-Star nominations, seven 15-win seasons and $262 million in career earnings.

Remember, we’re talking about “good,” which is the core of a contender, not “great,” which means division titles and a World Series. Aces? The Nats probably don’t have one in sight unless Gore maxes out.

Still, the Nats have something else in front of them that is perhaps more unusual and valuable than one of the best pitching trios this season. They have three more Pitchers with potentially similar skills – coming soon.

Just 11 months ago, Josiah Gray was an All-Star with a solid 3.91 ERA in 30 starts. Since then, his fastball has slipped a bit, and he’s currently in the minors recovering from the worrisome “forearm flexor strain” that often means one of two things: false alarm or Tommy John surgery in the next 18 months. If Gray can return healthy by the All-Star break, he’s just as promising as the trio mentioned above.

Cade Cavalli, the Nats’ No. 1 draft pick in 2020, is also recovering in the minors from Tommy John surgery. Manager Dave Martinez says he’s on schedule or ahead of schedule, throwing 95-98 mph. When you make it that far back, you’re usually doing your job, like Zimmermann did, who looked consistent in late-season starts in 2010 before establishing himself as a rotation staple the next year. Cavalli, who threw a ton in the minors but allowed a few too many walks, looks like a bigger, stockier Zimmermann to me.

Therefore, it is plausible that before the July 30 trade deadline, Gore, Irvin, Parker, Gray and – if he shakes off enough rust – Cavalli will be in the rotation together.

Because some of these five players are just coming back from injuries, while others may be reaching their innings limit toward the end of the season, it would be great to have another player to complete a possible arm-friendly six-man rotation.

Entering Saturday was 23-year-old rookie left-hander DJ Herz, who had 13 strikeouts and no walks in six hitless innings. In the Cubs’ farm system, Herz had stats like Nuke LaLoosh — 455 strikeouts but 208 walks in 317⅔ innings. That said, if he can throw enough strikes consistently, Herz, traded for Jeimer Candelario at last year’s trade deadline, could surpass Lane Thomas for Jon Lester in 2021 and Roark for Cristian Guzmán in 2010 in general manager Mike Rizzo’s flip-a-vet-at-the-deadline trophy case.

Of course, Juan Soto for Gore and shortstop CJ Abrams, both All-Star candidates, as well as 6-foot-1 James Wood (with a .355 batting average in AAA), outfield prospect Robert Hassell III and 20-year-old right-hander Jarlin Susana, whose slider in Grade A is reportedly even better than his 100-mph fastball, could convince the other 29 GMs to turn down calls from Rizzo in late July.

Suddenly we’re at a turning point in the Nats’ rebuild where anything can happen. With pitchers’ arms tied together like cobwebs, the news can get ugly quickly. Every time Martinez gives an update on Gray and Cavalli’s elbows, there’s silence.

Trevor Williams, who has been the Nats’ most effective pitcher (2.22 ERA), is out indefinitely with similarly troubling issues. If he comes back in time to be traded at the trade deadline, he will. If not, be happy if he stays. In a lovely fantasy, his history as a reliever helps the Nats in the eight-way comedy of the National League’s last playoff spot.

There are always such concerns about arm injuries. But now there is a downside that few, certainly not me, foresaw on Opening Day. By next month, the Nats could have a strong young rotation with six pitchers between the ages of 23 and 27 who have a combined total of at least 27 seasons under the team’s management. Nats fans could enjoy a combination of Gore, Irvin, Parker, Cavalli, Gray and Herz for years to come.

Pay special attention to Gore. His ERA is 3.24 and he has the sixth-best strikeout rate among starters, although his batting average on balls-in-play against him is .359 — last among all starters. BABIP is synonymous with “fluke factor.” In 14 starts, Gore has allowed about 14 more hits than a pitcher with his number of balls-in-play hits would normally. When that evens out, as it always does, Gore will need fewer pitches to go further in some of his games, and we may see who he really is.

Gore’s potential as a top rotation player is important, but the unexpected addition of two solid mid-rotation starters can also change the future. That’s the case with Irvin and Parker, who were drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively. Both had promising but hardly impressive minor league resumes when the phone rang in Rochester about how poor or poor the Nats’ rotation was.

In the movies, you don’t get your chance because the big club calls and says, “Can anybody down there throw a ball six feet?” But that’s pretty much what happened for Irvin last season and Parker this year. Herz got a similar emergency call late last month.

One theoretical principle runs through all of the Nats’ improved pitching this season. The best pitch is “a strike,” and the best time to throw it is “right now.”

Some never learn. Change that: Most never learn. I have spent decades standing 15 feet behind pitchers in spring training and watching them throw strikes or competitive near-strikes – those coincidentally ideal “chase pitches” – on almost every pitch. Then, in the game, they no longer have the competitive courage to do it – until they are behind and have no other choice. The “fear of the bat” takes hold of them, unconsciously.

To avoid walks, these cowards, normal people with understandable fears, throw almost as many strikes as the brave guys throughout the game. But they throw too many of them in the strike zone, when batters can be more selective and more dangerous.

Batters in pitcher’s counts are suddenly hitting almost as badly as pitchers. It’s a law. Right now, Irvin and Parker know it. The Nats hope they never forget it. Irvin has benefited the most after the team got a little upset and challenged him to attack more.

This season, his walks have dropped from 4.0 per nine innings, which is terrible, to 1.7, one of the best rates in MLB. His ERA has dropped by more than a third (from 4.61 to 3.00) and his home run rate has nearly halved (from 1.5 per nine innings to 0.8).

The Nats’ future looks so bright from now until August 11, with their manageable schedule and many losers, that a Sunglasses Promotion Day could work.

Still, this franchise has a long way to go. Another element of baseball destiny is taking your luck into your own hands by improving your skills. Every time Abrams or Keibert Ruiz, key center fielders, take themselves out of the game by hitting a pitcher’s pitch in the middle of an at-bat, I think, “If this is 2010 or 2011, we’re still a long way from 2012.”

Nevertheless, the three most important elements of a rebuild are, at least in theory, coming into focus: a unified team culture, sufficient talent throughout the organization and, finally, what almost no one would have thought the Nats capable of – the makings of a good, young rotation for the coming years.

Washington Nationals

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