ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals have a decision to make. The No. 5 spot in their rotation, a topic for the majority of the spring and the focus of a seasons-eve bombshell has again come into question.
Ross Detwiler, the left-hander the Nationals felt would be unjustly buried in the bullpen, has struggled his previous three starts. Chien-Ming Wang, whose spring injury helped facilitate Detwiler’s spot in the rotation, isn’t entirely suited for relief work.
Detwiler and Wang both pitched Friday night, Detwiler struggling with his command and not attacking hitters the way the Nationals would have liked, Wang relieving him and getting the win in a 7-4 Nationals victory. After the game, manager Davey Johnson left the door open that the roles for both might soon change. He didn’t have a definitive answer to that question a day later, though.
“I thought about it,” Johnson said. “I’m still thinking about it.”
The decision, Johnson explained, is not made in a vaccuum. One of the biggest factors in who is the team’s fifth starter is how whoever is not it affects the bullpen and the relief roles. The Nationals’ bullpen has undergone tremendous upheaval this season as injury stole their closer (Drew Storen), their most veteran reliever (Brad Lidge) and one of their set-up men (Ryan Mattheus) and ineffectiveness moved Henry Rodriguez out of the closer role.
Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard, who figure to share the save opportunities for the time being, were meant to be set-up men. Tom Gorzelanny and Craig Stammen were intended to be long relievers but Stammen has become an integral late-inning cog and Gorzelanny, too, has been used late in games as well.
So the decision also has to be one that weighs the pros and cons of having a right-handed long man whose major shoulder injury history makes him an unconventional reliever who wouldn’t be able to pitch very often or a second left-handed long reliever along with Gorzelanny, a power left-hander who the team believes is a bona-fide major league starter.
While the Nationals clearly signed Wang to be a starting pitcher, three mediocre starts by Detwiler should probably not warrant ejection from the rotation, either.
“There’s a lot of factors you weigh any time you make a change in the starting rotation,” Johnson said. “You don’t just look at who’s going bad and giving somebody else an opportunity. You also look at how it would affect the bullpen and would you have to realign the bullpen? The rotation is pretty solid. I’m comfortable with the guys that I’ve got in there and Det’s been fine. He’s been more than fine.”
Both Wang and Detwiler are lined up to pitch on the same day. They’ll both throw side sessions on Sunday, Johnson said, and the Nationals won’t truly have to make a decision until Wednesday’s game gets closer.
But the uncertainty is something Johnson says he tries to avoid, stressing how important he feels it is for all players to know their role and be mentally prepared.
“I’ll make that decision probably (Sunday),” Johnson said. “I’ve weighed all those things and thought about them and I have had discussions with (pitching coach Steve McCatty). I’ve got a pretty good idea of what needs to be done.”