The Washington Times - March 17, 2012, 01:13PM

VIERA, Fla. — Chien-Ming Wang walked through the Washington Nationals’ complex on Saturday morning without a significant limp and was in good spirits — all positive signs that the left hamstring strain he suffered Thursday was feeling better. But with Opening Day now less than three weeks away, the Nationals’ pitching staff is going to have to take shape soon, with or without him.

Which means John Lannan’s chances of making the Nationals’ Opening Day rotation have gone up, even if simply by virtue of the uncertainty surrounding Wang. But a note on the bulletin board in the Nationals’ clubhouse Saturday provided one clue that Lannan may not be the lone competitor, even still, for that No. 5 job. On Sunday, Ross Detwiler will throw six innings (or 75 pitches) in a minor league game. 

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The Nationals will continue to keep Detwiler stretched out as if he were a starting pitcher lining up to be in their rotation. With Nationals manager Davey Johnson saying Saturday that he will carry seven relievers — and two of them long relievers capable of spot starts — how Lannan, Wang and Detwiler all end up fitting into the pitching staff remains one of the spring’s most compelling questions.

Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez, Brad Lidge and Sean Burnett are already set for bullpen work. Tom Gorzelanny figures to join them as well as the first long man and the rotation’s top four is set with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson.

So where does that leave Lannan and Detwiler?

Lannan, who made his first career relief appearance on Thursday in what was planned as a piggy-back of Wang’s start, isn’t a prime relief candidate. 

“John Lannan’s been kind of competing with Wang for that spot in the rotation,” Johnson said. “And I expect that he’s going to still be in that spot… He’s a starter.”

Wang is also out of the running for a relief spot.

But Detwiler has the most upside of any of those three pitchers. So while Johnson danced around the question of if there would be direct competition between Lannan and Detwiler for the No. 5 starter spot in the event Wang needs more time, he is keeping Detwiler more stretched out than his other projected long reliever, Gorzelanny.

“As far as I’m concerned, we still haven’t seen the best of Ross Detwiler,” Johnson said. “how that plays out the rest of the year, I’m going to get him ready as a starter. I’m going to do the same thing with Gorzo — but not to the extent that I’m going to be doing it with Det.”

Craig Stammen will be on a similar schedule and Johnson expects all three to be able to throw 80-100 pitches by the end of the spring. Gorzelanny, though, is a reluctant long reliever at best. 

When the Nationals moved him to the bullpen last season to clear the way for Detwiler in the rotation, the left-hander was up front about his desire to have stayed where he was. Once he warmed to the bullpen, he wanted to play a more integral part. He reiterated those desires this spring, though it appears the only role for him at this point.

With 18 days between now and Opening Day there is plenty of time for the Nationals to allow some of this to shake out for itself but there’s no doubt they’re going to have some tough choices in the days ahead. 

They have plenty of options. But with Detwiler, Johnson notes one important clarification that separates him from the rest.

“Young Detwiler shows a lot of promise,” Johnson said. “And I want to make sure that he gets (an opportunity)… He has been throwing the heck out of the ball since he got here.”