Top Gun didn’t arrive, so Nats will ride the arms they have

Starters confident they can ‘make pitches’

Jordan  ZimmermannJordan Zimmermann
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VIERA, Fla. | The lockers for the first four members of the Washington Nationals’ 2011 starting rotation line up one right next to another inside the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium.

With more than 5,000 innings pitched among them, Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, John Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann make up a group of pitchers the Nationals have lauded this spring for their experience, their control and their ability to, very simply, “make pitches.”

And while all four of those pitchers, along with likely No. 5 starter Tom Gorzelanny, do indeed bring those qualities to the table, a few stalls down sits a constant reminder of what none of those first four can provide: They’re not Stephen Strasburg.

While Strasburg continues to undertake the arduous task of rehabbing his precious right elbow after Tommy John surgery last September, the Nationals must go on without him, and that means going on without a traditional No. 1 starter.

“Losing Strasburg, that’s a true No. 1,” Marquis said. “There really aren’t too many true No. 1’s in Major League Baseball. You could maybe count seven or eight guys that are true No. 1’s. After that, it’s how the other guy’s pitch.

“But if we have five guys that are capable of being 2’s and 3’s … we could do some good things.”

The Nationals have no choice but to count on it.

While every effort was made this offseason to lure Cliff Lee to Washington as a free agent or to coax Zack Greinke away from the Kansas City Royals via trade, the Nationals were unsuccessful. Filling that vacancy instead falls on the shoulders of the rest of the team’s starters.

“Everybody says that, ‘Front of the line starter,’” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “So who was out there? Cliff Lee? There are very few guys. It’s hard to do. … The effort was made to do it, but we just couldn’t.

“Do I feel disappointed? Do I feel lacking? No.”

What the Nationals do have is a future front-end starter in Zimmermann, now more than 18 months removed from his own Tommy John surgery. Add a fully healthy Marquis, who would like to contribute numbers closer to his traditional norms, and Washington would, in Lannan’s estimation, “eliminate any questions about our rotation” when factoring in Hernandez and Lannan himself, two pitchers whose work consistently hovers around the National League averages.

They also have more depth than they’ve had in recent years. The competition among Gorzelanny, Ross Detwiler, Yunesky Maya and Chad Gaudin for the team’s fifth rotation spot is evidence of that, regardless of the fact that Gorzelanny was given a significant head start. It’s an upgrade over the likes of Scott Olsen (4-8, 5.56 in 2010), Luis Atilano (6-7, 5.15) and J.D. Martin (1-5, 4.43).

For the first time in quite a while, the Nationals have the luxury of being able to choose from talent, even if it is back-of-the-rotation talent.

“Guys we’re not even thinking about, who aren’t even on the landscape, were guys we were counting on in the past,” general manager Mike Rizzo said.

By the numbers, the improvement may not be all that significant. If all five starters, including Gorzelanny, pitch to their career averages, the Nationals’ staff would end up with an estimated 50-60 record and an ERA around 4.50 - not exactly eye-popping numbers.

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