CHICAGO — You might call it “creative tension,” this farming out by the Washington Nationals of John Lannan, a four-year fixture in the starting rotation. “Stirring the pot” is another term that could be applied. Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots’ mastermind, is a great practitioner of it. You know that safety the Redskins just handed a chunk of money to, Brandon Meriweather? Well, Belichick cut him at the end of training camp last year even though Meriweather had played in the Pro Bowl the previous two seasons.
There was a fair amount of muttering among the Patriots at the time, but obviously it didn’t prevent them from reaching the Super Bowl (or coming within a minute or so of winning it). And Belichick isn’t much worried about ruffling feathers as long as it gets his team to play with a greater sense of urgency (read: insecurity). Nothing accomplishes that better — in football or any sport — than the casting off of an established veteran.
This might not have been the Nationals’ primary aim in demoting Lannan to Triple-A — a move he’s now resisting by requesting a trade — but it could turn out to be one of the fringe benefits. The 27-year-old southpaw, after all, is hardly a dead weight on this ballclub. His career record is just 38-51, sure, but he did lead the staff in victories last year (10), and his ERA+ (103 in 751 innings) is a few ticks above average. Yet, suddenly, the Nats don’t have room, even as a fifth starter, for an average major-league pitcher?
Of course they do — if they wanted to configure the roster that way. But here’s the thing: It’s different this season. To Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson, the team isn’t as much of a work in progress anymore. It’s built to win now. Thus, every game, every inning, becomes more important. Rizzo and Johnson are eager to see what another lefty, Ross Detwiler, can do at the back of the rotation while Chien-Ming Wang mends. And since Lannan isn’t comfortable working out of the bullpen, it didn’t make sense to keep him on the big club and send down Craig Stammen or Ryan Mattheus, who are comfortable as relievers.
Apart from the logic of it, though, the move says much about the difference between the Nationals of the past and the Nationals of the present. In years gone by, it wasn’t unusual for a Triple-A-quality pitcher to be getting some starts for the Nats. (No need to name names. You know who I’m talking about.) But now the team is so flush with arms that a major-league pitcher — and Lannan is most certainly that — is being shipped, kicking and screaming, to Triple-A. And not for a rehab assignment, either.
When Rizzo stood in the clubhouse after Tuesday’s exhibition finale and did a quick Q-and-A with the media, he didn’t sound like the used-car salesman his job has required him to be in recent seasons, while the Nationals slowly have built themselves into a contender. No, he sounded like a general manager who knows the worm is turning for the franchise and is confident he’s assembled many of the most important pieces.
Improved pitching aside, he said, “We’ve got Wilson [Ramos], [Ian] Des[mond] and a lot of guys offensively feeling good about themselves.” And let’s face it, if the Nats can produce more runs for Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Co., the postseason definitely will be within reach.
Earlier that afternoon, Ramos and Desmond had hit homers in the 8-7 loss to the Boston Red Sox, enabling the Nationals to do something they’ve rarely done since coming to Washington: rally from a six-run deficit. It impressed on you, even in a game that didn’t count, that this Nats club isn’t like its predecessors. It’s more complete, more dangerous … and infinitely more watchable.
In Thursday’s opener at Wrigley Field, the manager will hand the ball to Strasburg, who when all is said and done may be the best Washington pitcher since Walter Johnson. The batting order, meanwhile, has potential menace all the way through, with as many as a half-dozen guys possessing 20-home run capability. Finally — and this is hard to miss — there’s a changed vibe in the clubhouse. Or as Mattheus put it: “The energy around this ballclub is unbelievable [compared to] last year.”
One of the keys, Adam LaRoche is convinced, will be to “realize that no matter how we start out, we’re a really good ballclub.” It takes a little while to get used to that idea, after so much suffering (Senators I, Senators II, Nationals) down through the decades. But there’s no denying it: The Nats are a good ballclub, they truly are. (Notice I resisted the urge to say: finally!)