A year after three of its teams － the Braves, Mets, and Phillies － made the playoffs, the NL East is projected to be one of the best divisions in baseball once again.
Both the Braves and Mets won 101 games last season, while the Phillies won 87. The Phillies also ended up reaching the World Series for the first time since 2009. Each of those organizations made improvements to their respective rosters during the offseason as they eye another trip to the postseason. Meanwhile, the Marlins aren’t thought to be a serious contender, but they do have a strong pitching staff heading into the season. And even though the Nationals are in the early stages of a rebuild, they have some intriguing young players on their roster.
That being said, each team in the division has multiple pitchers that could impress over the course of the upcoming season. Below are five pitchers, one from each team, who could take the next step in their development as big league pitchers in 2023 and are worth keeping an eye on.
Washington Nationals: LHP MacKenzie Gore
The Nationals have some talented young pitchers on their roster this spring. Along with right-handed pitcher Josiah Gray, lefty MacKenzie Gore is looking to be in the Nats’ starting rotation at the start of the year. Gore was acquired last summer in the trade that sent superstar Juan Soto from Washington to San Diego.
The left-handed pitcher was selected third overall in the 2017 draft by the Padres. As a prospect, Gore was consistently towards the top of not only San Diego’s farm system but also every top 100 prospects list.
MacKenzie Gore made his major league debut on April 15th against the Braves. After left elbow inflammation put him on the injured list in late July, Gore did not make another big league appearance. He did, however, make four starts in Triple-A late in the year for the Rochester Red Wings.
Overall, Gore made 16 appearances for the Padres, 13 of which were starts. He started his major league career strong as he threw 48.0 innings with a 1.50 ERA, 57 strikeouts, and 17 walks in his first nine appearances. He also kept opponents to a .200/.279/.241 slash line over that span. However, in his final seven big league appearances of the year, Gore struggled. The left-hander tossed 22.0 innings to the tune of an 11.05 ERA, with 15 punch-outs and 20 walks, from June 11th through the time he was put on the injured list in late July. Batters hit .333/.454/.615 against him during that time.
In total, the North Carolina-born lefty pitched 70.0 innings with 72 strikeouts, 37 walks, and a 4.50 ERA. Big league hitters slashed .248/.346/.376 against him in his first round of big league innings. They also had a .259 expected batting average (20th percentile), a .432 expected slugging percentage (17th percentile), and a 9.7% barrel rate (12th percentile) against Gore. Again, those numbers aren’t a total picture of Gore’s performance since he did stumble in June and July.
As previously mentioned, Gore made four rehab starts after he was traded for Washington’s Triple-A affiliate in September. He pitched 12.0 innings and gave up seven earned runs (5.25 ERA). The lefty struck out nine batters in those innings while walking four.
During his time in the big leagues, the former first-round pick featured a 4-seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup:
|4-seam fastball||60.9%||94.7 MPH|
Gore is fully healthy, and with a strong spring, he should make Washington’s Opening Day roster. The most important thing for Gore this year is his health and endurance. He has only thrown 100.0 or more innings once in his professional career (2019). The Nationals will surely keep a close eye on Gore throughout the season and could keep him on an innings limit.
MacKenzie Gore showed plenty of promise last season and was an early Rookie of the Year candidate in the National League before he began to get hit around. Since an innings limit is likely, don’t look for Gore to throw a ton of innings. However, in whatever workload he has, Gore could be one of the best young left-handed pitchers in baseball this year.
Miami Marlins: LHP Jesús Luzardo
Over the last few seasons, the Marlins’ strength has been their starting rotation. It figures to be that way again this year. Miami’s rotation will be anchored by reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcántara. One of the arms behind Alcántara in the Marlins rotation will be 25-year-old Jesús Luzardo.
Luzardo was selected in the third round of the 2016 draft by the Nationals. A year later, he was traded to the Athletics, where he became one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. The left-handed pitcher made his big league debut with Oakland in 2019. He only pitched 12.0 innings that year, allowing a pair of earned runs and striking out 16 batters. Luzardo made nine starts with the A’s during the shortened 2020 season and finished eighth in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
In 2021, he struggled, though. As an Athletic, Luzardo made six starts and seven relief appearances before he was demoted to Triple-A in July. He was then traded a week later to the Marlins. He made 12 starts for Miami. In total, Luzardo pitched 95.1 big league innings to the tune of a 6.61 ERA in 2021. He also struck out 98 batters and walked 48.
Outside of suffering a left forearm strain that kept him out for a little more than two months, Luzardo’s 2022 campaign went very well. He pitched 100.1 innings in 18 starts. His ERA was 3.22. The lefty’s 10.8 K/9 fell into the 87th percentile, while his 3.1 BB/9 was in the 36th percentile. He didn’t get batters to swing at many pitches outside of the zone, though. His 28% Chaste Rate was in the 33rd percentile. Luzardo was able to get plenty of swings and misses, however. Batters whiffed at 31.7% of pitches they swung at (88th percentile). Overall, opponents hit .191/.266/.335 against the southpaw.
Two of the biggest reasons for Luzardo’s success were his decreased walk rate and hitters not teeing off against his fastball as they did in 2021. He left his fastball over the plate a lot two years ago, which resulted in a .336 batting average and a .655 slugging percentage against said pitch. Last season, he located his fastball on his glove-side edge of the strike zone more. He also threw it in the upper part of the zone more. The difference in location resulted in a decrease in both batting average (.207) and slugging percentage (.414) against Luzardo’s 4-seamer.
Luzardo’s repertoire included a curveball, 4-seam fastball, changeup, and sinker last year, according to Statcast:
|4-seam fastball||27.2%||96.3 MPH|
Luzardo has had injury issues during his professional career. Most recently, he suffered a left-hand fracture in 2021 as a member of the A’s, and as previously mentioned, a left forearm strain last season. So this year, the most important thing is his health.
Behind that will be how many innings he can pitch. The 25-year-old has only thrown more than 100.0 innings twice in his career (in 2018 as a minor leaguer and last season). Even though that’s the case, the Marlins probably won’t have him on an innings limit. As long as he can remain healthy, he could have a sizable workload.
Coming off his best season as a big leaguer should only help the Peruvian-born southpaw as he continues to grow and develop. If he sustains his improvements and remains healthy, Jesús Luzardo could not only become Miami’s second-best starter but also one of baseball’s better left-handed pitchers. An All-Star nod this July could also be on the horizon.
Philadelphia Phillies: LHP Ranger Suárez
Signed as an international free agent out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in 2012 for $25,000 by the Phillies, Ranger Suárez has come a long way during his professional baseball career. He made his big league debut in 2018 at the age of 22. Almost five years later, the lefty has become one of Philadelphia’s more important pitchers, especially over the last two seasons.
Suárez started the 2021 campaign in the majors as a reliever. He was then stretched into a starter in the middle of the season out of necessity by the Phillies. Suárez was dominant in both roles. Out of the bullpen, he made 27 appearances, pitched 40.1 innings, and had a 1.12 ERA. As a starting pitcher, the left-hander made 12 starts, pitched 65.2 innings, and posted a 1.51 ERA. In total, Suárez pitched 106.0 innings to the tune of a 1.36 ERA with 107 punch-outs and 33 walks in 2021.
Heading into the season, Ranger Suárez knew he would be a full-time starting pitcher for the Phillies. Many hoped he would continue his success on the mound from the previous season as the team was trying to end a playoff drought that lasted for more than a decade. Suárez did not start out the year how he, or the organization, had hoped, however.
During the months of April and May, the southpaw made 10 starts. In those outings, he tossed a total of 48.0 innings and had a 4.69 ERA. His strikeout totals dipped (7.9 K/9), and his walk rate increased (4.1 BB/9) when compared to 2021. Suárez turned things around big time for the remainder of the season, though. He made 19 more starts, and outside of his final start of the year in Houston, where he surrendered six earned runs in three innings, Suárez was much closer to his 2021 form.
From the start of June through the end of September, Ranger Suárez made 18 starts and pitched 104.1 innings. Over that span, he posted a 2.76 ERA with 7.3 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9. During that stretch, opponents hit .228/.290/.348 against him. Overall, Suárez pitched 155.1 innings with a 3.65 ERA, 129 strikeouts, and 58 walks. He was also one of the game’s best fielding pitchers with nine DRS.
Not only did the Venezuelan-born lefty pitch well to end the campaign, but he was also a weapon during Philly’s playoff run. Suárez made five postseason appearances (three starts and two relief appearances). In those appearances, he pitched 14.2 innings with a 1.23 ERA, while striking out 13 batters and walking six.
Suárez used 6 different pitches in 2022 － a sinker, changeup, 4-seam fastball, cutter, curveball, and slider:
|4-seam fastball||17.7%||93.2 MPH|
His cutter and curveball were new additions to his repertoire and were primarily used against right-handed hitters.
As noted above, Ranger Suárez has become a key member of the Phillies’ pitching staff. That will be no different this season. After dealing with tightness in his left forearm this spring, Suárez had to slow down his ramp-up for the season. He then suffered a setback that will more than likely keep him from starting the season in the Phillies’ rotation.
If the left-handed pitcher can start the year off, whenever that will be for him, on a better foot than he did a season ago, Suárez could easily help the Phillies form a big three in their starting rotation that includes himself, Wheeler, and Nola. While Ranger Suárez doesn’t profile as a hard-throwing ace, he is entering his prime and could become one of the more difficult left-handed starters to face in the N.L. this year.
New York Mets: RHP Kodai Senga
The Mets did some reshuffling to their starting rotation this past winter. After losing Jacob deGrom in free agency to the Rangers, New York went out and signed multiple starting pitchers. One of those pitchers was Kodai Senga, who was signed after being posted by the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. The Japanese-born pitcher inked a 5-year, $75 million deal with the Mets. During his 11 years in Nippon Professional Baseball, Senga pitched 1,089.0 innings with a 2.59 ERA, 1,252 strikeouts, and 414 walks.
Kodai Senga, 30, pitched 144.0 innings a year ago in NPB. His ERA was 1.94. He struck out 156 batters and walked 27. While there isn’t a full scouting report on the 30-year-old, some reports suggest he throws both a 4-seam and 2-seam fastball. Although he doesn’t always throw his fastball as hard as he can, he does have the ability to reach triple digits with it. He also features a pitch considered to be a slower sinker that registers at 88-91 MPH. Senga also has a slider/cutter combination and offers a look at two different curveballs. The right-hander’s best pitch, however, is his splitter which has been nicknamed the “ghost fork.”
It is very hard to know how a player who is coming over from Japan is going to perform in the big leagues. The talent levels in the majors are much greater than in Japan. There is a strong argument, though, that Kodai Senga has what it takes to be an effective big-league pitcher since his repertoire features a number of plus pitches. One of the more interesting things to watch with the righty this year is how big-league hitters fare against his splitter/forkball.
The Mets don’t need Kodai Senga to be their best pitcher. That role is left for future Hall of Famers Max Scherzer and newly acquired Justin Verlander. Some think if Senga doesn’t work out as a starter, he has the stuff to be an elite bullpen arm. But, with how nasty he can be, coupled with the fact that big league hitters have little to no experience against him, he could take the league by storm. Only time will tell.
Atlanta Braves: RHP Spencer Strider
Spencer Strider was selected in the 4th round of the 2020 draft by the Braves out of Clemson University. He made his big league debut in 2021 and made 2 appearances for Atlanta out of the bullpen. The right-hander was used as a reliever at the start of the 2022 season but was then moved to the Braves’ starting rotation less than two months into the year. Strider quickly became one of the most dominant pitchers in the big leagues a year ago.
Spencer Strider’s first full big league season couldn’t have been any more special. While making 20 starts and 11 relief appearances, he pitched a total of 131.2 innings. He struck out 202 batters and walked 45. Strider the reliever and Strider the starter were very similar pitchers. Out of the bullpen, he pitched 24.1 innings with a 2.22 ERA and 37 strikeouts (13.7 K/9). Out of the rotation, Strider pitched 107.1 innings with a 2.77 ERA and 165 strikeouts (13.8 K/9). Opponents hit .180/.254/.264 against the former fourth-round pick.
After making his first start against the Diamondbacks on May 30th, Strider would go on to make 19 more starts. In those starts, he pitched more than six innings twice － on August 2nd against the Phillies (6.2 IP) and September 1st against the Rockies (8.0 IP). Even though he generally didn’t go deep into games, Strider did throw plenty of pitches during his outings. He threw 100 or more pitches nine times, and he reached his season high of 106 pitches three times.
Strider was able to stay healthy for most of the season. He did, however, land on the injured list with a left oblique strain that kept him out of action for the final weeks of the regular season. The Clemson alumni returned in the postseason and made one start that did not go all too well. The righty gave up five earned runs in 2.1 innings in his lone playoff appearance.
Not only did Strider’s regular season performance result in a second-place finish in NL Rookie of the Year voting behind teammate Michael Harris II, but it also resulted in his Baseball Savant page being a sea of red outside of his walk rate. Everything about Strider was awe-inspiring.
Strider’s repertoire only consisted of three pitches. And he only really used two of them:
|4-seam fastball||67%||98.2 MPH|
The Ohio-born righty primarily used his changeup against left-handed hitters. Out of the 109 changeups he threw last year, 100 of them were to lefties.
Spencer Strider isn’t slated to be Atlanta’s ace this year, at least at the moment. Instead, that role is reserved for left-handed pitcher Max Fried, who finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting in 2022 behind Sandy Alcántara. Strider is currently slated to be Atlanta’s second-best starter, though. But, as the year progresses, he could become Atlanta’s most dominating arm.
Some things to watch in regards to Strider this season are if he can continue to dominate lineups by mainly using two pitches and how he holds up health-wise over the course of a full season. Also, being more efficient with his pitch counts and working deeper into games would surely benefit the young right-hander in taking the next step as a big leaguer. Either way, if he continues to carve up opposing lineups, Spencer Strider could make his first All-Star team this summer. And if everything goes well throughout the entire 2023 season, he could be in the Cy Young Award conversation by the season’s end.
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