Last year, the Nationals came to spring training with a competition for their rotation. Jordan Zimmermann was in, as was Livan Hernandez and John Lannan. Jason Marquis, fully healthy, was also a sure thing. And then there was the newly acquired Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Detwiler competing for that No. 5 spot. And they competed well. Detwiler did nothing to disqualify himself from the conversation but with one option remaining and the possibility for more seasoning at Triple-A available, he found himself as the odd man out.
Ten months later, the Nationals are shaping up to have a competition for the starting rotation yet again — but this one has a very different complexion. The locks now are Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Zimmermann — a top three that can compete among the game’s best — and that leaves Chien-Ming Wang, Lannan and Detwiler left to duke it out for the final two spots with one ticketed most likely for the Nationals bullpen.
“They’re three quality pitchers,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Friday night in a conference call with reporters. “I think it’d be fair to say (one will end up in the bullpen)… I don’t see them not being on the big league club, but there’s going to be competition so we’ll see how that pans out during spring training. But they’re three quality pitchers and if they’re not three of our best 12 pitches when we leave camp, we’re doing pretty good because they’re three quality major league pitchers.”
So how to handicap this race when there’s nearly two months left before pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla.? The truth is, you can’t. First of all, with just under two months remaining in the offseason, there’s no rule that says the Nationals are done making moves.
But taking what they have at this moment, it’d be easy to say that Detwiler is the one who has “bullpen” penciled in next to his name. Wang’s injury history and need to remain on a five-day schedule with a routine warm-up before he pitches would lead most to believe he’s precluded from a spot in the bullpen and Lannan, who is a known commodity as a starter, has never once pitched out of the bullpen in his entire big league career.
Detwiler performed well out of the bullpen in 2011. He’s the one with the least major league experience and the biggest question mark at this point as far as not having a lengthy major league track record to reference.
He’s also the one who showed flashes of the brilliance the Nationals have been waiting for in his starts down the stretch in 2011 and he’s the one with the most potential to truly solidify the Nationals rotation as one of the elite in major league baseball.
“Det threw the ball very well at the end of the year,” said pitching coach Steve McCatty. “I’m really happy with the way Det threw the ball. Everything we tried to work on… he worked on it all winter last year and he worked hard in the spring and everybody saw the velocity go up. Det has really progressed well.
“If something happens and Det’s not a starter, there’ll be a place for him… You need pitchers. You can’t get enough pitching. There’s no doubt about it.”
One of the biggest points of emphasis for the Nationals bolstered starting rotation is how young they are. Strasburg won’t be 24 until mid-July, Zimmermann turns 26 in May and Gonzalez won’t hit 27 until next September. But don’t for a second think anyone’s excluding Detwiler, who’ll turn 26 in spring training and Lannan, who won’t be 28 until next fall, when they make those statements. Neither should be brushed off easily as a part the Nationals could do without at this point.
“(Gonzalez) just turned 26,” Rizzo said. “He has accomplished a lot of things before his 26th birthday and gives us a young corps of starting pitchers at the major-league level that really is in the realm of something we’ve never had here before.”
All of this hand-wringing will most likely be moot by mid-season. The Nationals didn’t need a sixth starter until the end of May in 2011 and that was considered a feat in itself. Pitchers get hurt — even with minor injuries — or the schedule gets jumbled and an extra starter is needed. There isn’t a team in baseball who gets by with just the five pitchers they open the season with. Still, it’s an interesting debate to be had while the days tick off the calendar toward spring training.
“We feel, even with this trade, we have great depth in the starting rotation,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, John Lannan. We also have guys who can start and will compete for a starting job: Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen. We know over the course of the season we’re going to need more than five starting pitchers. Everybody does. We feel we’re still very deep in starting pitching. We like the talent level of our starting pitching, and it’s going to be great competition to see who comes out of there as our starting five.”