Blow of Gray's injury softened by ascension of other young starters (2024)

Tuesday’s news on Josiah Gray and Cade Cavalli wasn’t good, certainly not in Gray’s case. The Nationals’ Opening Day starter, who landed on the injured list after two outings with a right flexor strain, has been shut down during the final stages of his rehab assignment after a recurrence of elbow discomfort and is scheduled to visit specialist Keith Meister in Dallas during the All-Star break.

We won’t know until then whether Gray’s injury has become far more significant and requires surgery, or whether he managed to avoid the worst and just needs more time off. Either way, it’s clear he won’t be pitching in the big leagues anytime soon, and his 2024 season could end up a complete wash.

There’s still reasonable hope for Cavalli pitching major league games for the Nationals in the relatively near future, though his return from Tommy John surgery isn’t as imminent as it once looked after the right-hander came down with the flu last week and now needs to start building up his arm yet again. Both Cavalli and Gray’s rehab assignments have been shut down.

This would have qualified as terrible news back in April. The Nats absolutely were counting on both Gray and Cavalli to be a big part of their 2024 rotation, and then for years to come after that.

It’s still bad news, but it may not be as damaging to the club’s short-term and long-term hopes as most would’ve thought when the season began. For that, we can thank the remarkable and unexpected ascension of three other young starting pitchers who have dazzled so far in the majors this year: Jake Irvin, Mitchell Parker and DJ Herz.

MacKenzie Gore also has been quite good, but he was always going to be a big part of the plan now and in the future. The other three were wild cards, with only Irvin having already pitched in the big leagues last season and the other two perhaps likely to get called up somewhere along the way to fill out the back end of the rotation.

Instead, they’ve all blossomed into effective major leaguers right before our eyes. Gore has a 3.47 ERA in 17 starts and 107 strikeouts, ninth most in the National League. Irvin has a 3.03 ERA and 1.061 WHIP in 17 starts, ranking ninth and seventh in the NL, respectively. Parker has a 3.32 ERA and 1.119 WHIP and has allowed more than three earned runs only once in 14 big league starts. And Herz, though erratic in four of his six starts, nonetheless now has multiple double-digit-strikeout games with zero walks in each of them.

Herz showed off the best version of himself Tuesday night against the Mets, allowing just one run over 5 2/3 innings with 10 strikeouts and no walks. Most impressively, he threw a whopping 70 of his 92 pitches for strikes.

The 23-year-old lefty, who walked nearly six batters per nine innings throughout his minor league career, is now turning into a consistent strike-thrower in the majors, with only seven walks issued in 27 innings.

It’s one thing, though, to throw strikes. It’s another to prove you can get major league hitters out in the strike zone, which is exactly what Herz is doing.

“It’s good for my confidence,” he said. “(Pitching strategist Sean) Doolittle was talking about it, and so was (pitching coach Jim) Hickey: ‘Don’t give these guys too much credit. Your stuff is really good. Just get it over there and be confident with it.’”

It’s worked for Herz, and it’s worked for the entire Nationals pitching staff, which has issued only 233 walks this season, second fewest in the NL.

All of which has come at such an important time for the organization. As great as it would be for Gray and Cavalli both to be part of the current rotation, the development of those other young arms has given the Nats some much needed insurance for something else to go wrong. The losses of Gray and Cavalli (and Trevor Williams, for that matter) would have been far more devastating if not for the ascension of Irvin, Parker and Herz to not only fill those rotation slots but thrive in them.

“I love Josiah Gray, as you know,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And he’s a competitor. We’d love to have him back. But in a sense, we had some guys come up here that we didn’t count on until maybe later on this year, and they’ve done really well. So it’s good to see we’re developing young pitchers that are getting a chance to pitch up here and are doing well.”

Even with the Nationals struggling to win games right now due to a weak lineup and a tiring bullpen, it’s easily the most encouraging development of the season. And reason to remain optimistic about the club’s long-term chances of returning to contention.

Blow of Gray's injury softened by ascension of other young starters (2024)
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