In an unexpected move, the Washington Nationals optioned veteran left-hander John Lannan to Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday and will open the season with Ross Detwiler, another left-hander, as their fifth starter.
Speculation about Lannan's future with the Nationals swirled throughout spring training because of the team's starting-pitching surplus. But that quieted after Chien-Ming Wang strained his left hamstring March 15, and manager Davey Johnson named Lannan his fifth starter.
Johnson planned to tell Lannan of the reversal Tuesday morning but put off the conversation until the third inning of the exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox at Nationals Park.
"It was a tough day and not the way you like to end spring training," Johnson said, unusually subdued. "It's all about what's best right now for the organization. As tough as it was, it was the right decision."
With Lannan's demotion, right-handed relievers Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen made the team. Chad Durbin, another contender for the final bullpen spots, was released Tuesday and signed with the Atlanta Braves.
As recently as March 26, Johnson backed Lannan and planned to start him April 10.
"John's my guy," Johnson said.
But Johnson didn't believe Lannan was suited to pitch out of the bullpen, and he had a minor-league option left. Ultimately, the move was about providing Detwiler three or four starts before Wang returns from the disabled list.
Detwiler, the 26-year-old strong-armed ex-first round draft pick, moved into the Nationals' rotation late in 2011 and impressed many in the organization. Over nine starts from Aug. 4 to the end of the season, Detwiler was 4-5 with a 3.20 ERA.
"I couldn't justify hiding him in the bullpen," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "He's a stuff guy with great upside, and he has a chance to be a really good starting pitcher for us."
Lannan, scheduled to earn $5 million this season, is the team's second-highest paid pitcher behind Edwin Jackson. Lannan, 27, was the Nationals' Opening Day starter in 2009 and 2010. He started 128 games in his first five seasons, emerging as one of the rotation's anchors, and went 10-13 with a 3.70 earned-run average in 33 starts last season.
In 2010, Lannan was optioned to Double-A after 14 starts with the Nationals.
An affable fixture in the clubhouse who took his on-mound struggles hard, Lannan joked that his best pitch is a strike. But he relied on his two-seam fastball and a four-seam changeup that moves he learned in 2009 from ex-teammate Shairon Martis.
Now Lannan will start Syracuse's April 5 opener against Rochester, Johnson said. The manager called Lannan a "very luxurious insurance policy" and someone who will be ready for "any problems" the Nationals encounter. Beyond that, Lannan's future in the organization isn't clear.
After the game, Lannan wasn't in the clubhouse. His nameplate remained on the locker along with a Starbucks cup, two hats and a pair of cleats.
"It's unfortunate John has to suffer," said Stammen, Lannan's close friend. "Baseball isn't always as fun as when we were kids, but that's the business part of it."
Across the clubhouse, Detwiler alternated grins about making the rotation, at least in the short term, with a subdued look. He came to terms with pitching from the bullpen until Johnson told him he'd be in the rotation after he left Tuesday's game. Detwiler felt bittersweet.
"It was the hard way out," Johnson said.
Within sight of Lannan's locker, "Leave to Chicago" was scrawled in black marker on a whiteboard. Chicago is where the Nationals open the season Thursday against the Cubs.
That's a trip Lannan won't be taking.
• Amanda Comak and Dan Daly contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.