A look at the new faces in DC

The first month of the Nationals season has not gone according to the plan. Thanks to a combination of injuries and poor performance, the Nationals have promoted five rookie pitchers to the big leagues since April 14. As of now, lefties Matt Grace and Sammy Solis are the only that remain on the roster, but don't be surprised to see these five guys bounce around between Syracuse and DC all season.

RHP Rafael Martin is the non-prospect of the group, turning 31 years old on May 16. Since being signed out of Mexico in 2010, Martin has mostly pitched in Harrisburg and Syracuse, posting solid strikeout numbers beside average walk rates. His major league debut against Boston on April 15 was a storybook outing, as he struck out five out of the seven batters he faced in two shutout innings. Unfortunately, his next three outings were mostly the opposite, allowing seven runs (five earned) on seven hits and three home runs in three innings. Martin has still struck out an insane 40.7% of the batters he's faced (11 out of 27), but he was sent down on April 28 to make room for A.J. Cole's spot start.

There's a solid chance we see Martin again, as the two great innings and three terrible ones are an extremely small sample size to judge his ability to pitch at the ML level with. His bread-and-butter pitch, a 77-82 mph slider that spins more than Grandmaster Flash, was the pitch that was hit the hardest in his short stint in the majors; batters had four of their eight hits off of the slider, including all three home runs that Martin allowed, despite him throwing it under 20% of the time. Given the fact that Martin has only allowed two home runs in 89 and 1/3 innings between 2012 and 2013, I'd say his three poor performances are an anomaly.

LHP Felipe Rivero came up next, getting the first crack at the 2nd lefty role in the bullpen after Xavier Cedeno was designated for assignment. The 23 year old pitched the 9th inning in a 7-1 game against Philly on April 17, allowing one run thanks to singles by Cesar Hernandez, Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard while striking out Cody Asche and Darin Ruf. A lefty giving up a single to Ryan Howard and striking out Darin Ruf is kinda hilarious. A gastrointestinal bleed ended Rivero's first call-up on April 22, and he's still on the 15 day DL (obviously, because 15 days have not passed).

If you read anything that I wrote over the offseason, you know that Rivero is one of my favorite Nationals prospects, and I did like his underlying numbers from his one appearance, throwing his 94 mph fastball 77% of the time and mixing in his 87 mph changeup and 80 mph curveball 6% and 18% of the time, respectively. Out of the three lefties that received call-ups, I think Rivero needs the most seasoning in the minors still, as he's got some mechanical issues to tune up to get a more consistent release point. That being said, he could be next year's Matt Thornton, a fireballling lefty who is hard on righties as well.

LHP Matt Grace was surprisingly not the first lefty up (maybe the Nats wanted Rivero to be both their second lefty and an extra long man?), but he looks to be the one with the biggest chance of sticking. Grace has thrown 46 pitches to 13 batters, allowing two singles and one walk while striking out three opponents. Dee Gordon (twice), Nick Markakis (twice), Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman make up the list of lefties that Grace has faced, and he has only allowed one single to Dee Gordon out of that group, along with two strikeouts (and no walks). Obviously it's a small sample size, but it's an encouraging first stint.

Grace has never been much of a strikeout pitcher (7.33 K/9 from 2013-15, the years he's been a full-time reliever), but he has struck out an impressive number of the lefties he's faced, rising from 30% in 2013 to 32% in 2014 and steady at a solid 29% so far in 2015. While he is unlikely to ever be the type of reliever who can consistently get both lefties and righties out like Rivero and Solis have the potential to, he looks to be a more than capable LOOGY.


RHP A.J. Cole has the will to win, apparently, as the Nats are 1-0 in games that he starts. The good news stops there on the surface, though, as he allowed nine runs (four earned) on nine hits, one walk and one strikeout in two innings against Atlanta on Tuesday. He did put together three decent outings in Syracuse before his call-up, allowing five runs (four earned) on 18 hits, one walk and ten strikeouts in 15 innings. It's worth noting that Cole was throwing between 90.4 and 93.4 mph in his start against Atlanta, the lower end of his velocity range, and it would be nice for his strikeout rates if he goes back to touching 95 or 96.

Cole is still just 23 years old, and while the Nats haven't gotten the returns they've wanted out of their bullpen so far in the season, it looks right now like they're not considering moving him up to the big leagues as a temporary reliever. It's worth watching, though, if the bullpen is still struggling in June or July. I'd still love to see a breaking ball develop into a truly solid third option if he's going to stick in the rotation.

LHP Sammy Solis made his major league debut last night, after being called up when Cole was sent back to AAA on Wednesday. The 26 year old has taken the long, windy road to DC, with only 261 professional innings thrown since he was drafted in 2010 (including 78 and 2/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League). While he lacks experience, he's got sexy stuff, with a low-to-mid 90's fastball that pairs well with his potentially plus changeup and average slider. Since the lefty turns 27 years old in August, it appears the Nats might be giving up on him as a starter, and it will be interesting to watch if he gets any uptick in his velocity out of the bullpen. I'd expect his current stint in DC to be relatively brief, but certainly won't be surprised to see him back up later in the year, after he gets more innings out of the bullpen under his belt.

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