When the Washington Nationals finalized a one-year, $4 million deal with right-hander Chien-Ming Wang for 2012, they helped solidify what continues to become one of the young team’s clear strengths: starting pitching depth.
They added Wang — an experienced veteran they believe is currently, and will continue to be, completely healthy — to a rotation expected to include Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan and a plethora of candidates for the No.5 spot. Candidates that start with, but aren’t limited to, Ross Detwiler, Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock.
Asked in a conference call on Friday about that depth, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was blunt, admitting the Nationals feel they have “at least six or seven quality guys we can call on to start in the major leagues,” but taking it one step further by adding that, if necessary, they could go to eight or nine different capable starters. In fact, Rizzo said, “we’ve got guys knocking on the door that probably should be pitching in the big leagues this coming season that may not be.”
And yet Rizzo still didn’t shy away from the fact that the Nationals offseason to-do list remains topped with trying to acquire a reliable, durable, successful starting pitcher.
He did, however, describe what the team is looking for. And perhaps instead of blatantly leaning more toward a high-priced Type-A free agent like C.J. Wilson — whom the Nationals have scouted, like, and are linked to often — they’re simply looking for a proven big league winner.
“The type of pitcher we’re looking for is a good leader type of guy that throws a lot of innings,” Rizzo said. “That has shown he can win in the big leagues and really can lead our staff — not just by having the best stuff on the staff but by showing how to be a professional, how to be a winner and how to pitch 200 innings in a season many many times in a season. That’s kind of the guy we’re looking for.
“The top of the rotation guys are the guys who are going to pitch all the time. They’re going to be 200-inning guys anyway so I think they go hand in hand.”
Wang will not be restricted in any way next season, Rizzo said, ridding himself of pitch counts and innings limits. Rizzo referred to the right-hander, who spent two years rehabbing a torn shoulder capsule in a trying and sometimes discouraging process, as “a veteran horse we’re going to count on.” When he was at his best, a 19-game winner with the New York Yankees, Wang threw over 200 innings only once (218 in 2006) but threw 199 1/3 the following year as well.
He joins a rotation that includes Strasburg, who will be on an innings limit similar to the 160-inning maximum Zimmermann was on in 2011, and Zimmermann, who is expected to throw 200-plus innings for the first time in his career.
The Nationals want someone they can add to that list who they can count on to be a role model both in the way he goes about his business, but also how he performs and prepares.
“I really like the way the rotation is set right now,” Rizzo said. “I think we have great depth there we have great talent and we have upper rotation guys, some middle rotation guys and some back of the rotation guys. We’ve got great depth in our minor league system.”
“With that said, we’re certainly not satisfied, ever, because you can never have enough quality starting pitching,” he added. “It hasn’t changed our long-term offseason outlook that we’d like to improve our starting rotation.”
They’d also like to find a bona-fide center fielder and a high on-base percentage leadoff hitter — as well as upgrading their bench. So would they be willing to trade from that exceptional depth?
“I think we have enough pitching depth we could trade off of our pitching depth. We also have depth at other positions,” Rizzo said. “(But) you can never have enough pitching. You can never have enough depth in the minor league system and it’s taken us a long time to assemble a deep farm system that we can be proud of and is contributing on the major league level consistently. We certainly don’t want to rid ourselves of that. It’s important to keep the depth. We’re going to make trades when trades are prudent and if we can help ourselves int he long term by trading away some of our depth we will do so.
“Pitching depth often quickly becomes pitching need when an injury happens or that type of thing. I’m often afraid to trade off of pitching depth to fill other needs because pitching is so scarce in the game right now and it’s so valuable.”
– One other note, the Nationals wanted to include a team option for 2013 in the contract with Chien-Ming Wang, or a mutual option, but Wang and his representation, Alan Nero, were not inclined to agree with that. Wang made just 11 starts this year and while the Nationals feel he’s healthy enough to warrant a $4 million base salary, were Wang to have a full year of health and success there would certainly be more teams interested and perhaps at a higher premium. Clearly, the idea was that Wang could prove both of those things this year and then hit the free agent market again next fall.
The two sides debated a mutual option but, ultimately, they settled on a straight one-year deal.
“(Wang) wants to prove that he’s a healthy pitcher and get back in the market and be a free agent as a healthy starter with a full healthy season under his belt,” Rizzo said. “I would imagine we would get first run and the best chance of signing him if in fact that situation came about.”