DALY: Nats’ Rizzo aiming to get a leg up in arms race

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

First the Washington Nationals send a pocketful of prospects to the Oakland A’s for Gio Gonzalez. Then they sign Edwin Jackson to a one-year deal. I ask you: Has this team ever been more ready for rainouts — not to mention doubleheaders? You could fill a ball bag with the starting pitchers general manager Mike Rizzo has stockpiled.

At the moment, the Nationals have seven who started at least 10 games last season. And that doesn’t include Stephen Strasburg, who was easing back into things after undergoing Tommy John surgery. There are also five pitchers on the roster who have thrown 200 innings in a season. And that list — Gonzalez, Jackson, John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang, Tom Gorzelanny — doesn’t include StrasburgorJordan Zimmermann, whose 3.18 ERA last year was 10th-best in the National League.

Toss in Ross Detwiler, and there are a ton of options for manager Davey Johnson. I count eight — as many arms as you’ll find on an octopus.

And let’s face it, it might take an octopus to climb over the pitching-rich Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves in the NL East. The Phillies come at you with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels — two Cy Young winners and (who knows?) maybe a Cy Future. The Braves’ triumvirate of Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson is pretty imposing, too. How can the Nats compete against clubs such as those if they can’t trot out a formidable rotation? Say this for Rizzo and owner Ted Lerner: They’re trying.

They’re also — and this is just as encouraging — taking every conceivable precaution. They’re not assuming Zimmermann, who also had Tommy John surgery, is necessarily ready to stretch out to 200 innings (especially since he’s never done it). They’re not assuming Wang, who appeared to be getting it back together late last season, is going to be capable of that kind of workload, either. And they know that at some point, probably around the 160-inning mark, they’ll have to shut down Strasburg, just as they put Zimmermann in a zip-lock bag a year ago. It’s simply the intelligent thing to do.

Indeed, the symbolism of the Gonzalez and Jackson moves is as important as the moves themselves. When you gather a group of starters such as this, you’re telling the fans: “We’re in it for the long haul this season … and beyond. When September rolls around, we want to be right there — with a major league-quality pitcher to throw at our opponents every night. No more spot starts by Yunesky Maya. We’re better than that now.”

You have to like how the rotation is shaping up — even with Gorzelanny, the versatile southpaw, likely to remain in the bullpen. You’ve got power (Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson). You’ve got lefties (Gonzalez, Lannan, Detwiler). You’ve got at least some playoff experience (Jackson with St. Louis and Tampa Bay, Wang with the New York Yankees). Plus, only Wang (31) is in his 30s (and he’s pitched just 733 major league innings, so his odometer reading still is low).

On top of all this, the Nationals’ octopus gives them flexibility. Rizzo might say he has no plans to trade any of his starters, but obviously the possibility exists. And pitchers are nice cards to be holding around deadline time. If another team sees one of your hurlers as The Missing Piece, you can get something really useful in return.

All that said, Gonzalez still has to show he can be as effective in Nationals Park as he was in the A’s pitcher-friendly ballyard. (Otherwise, Rizzo will rue the day he gave him a five-year, $42 million extension.) And Jackson — for now, anyway — is strictly a rental. Strasburg, Zimmermann and Wang are hardly without worry, either. (A pitching arm is a mysterious thing; one minute it can seem as strong as fortified steel, the next as fragile as a fortune cookie.)

But the Nats have taken an 80-81 club and added some interesting appendages. In fact, if everything comes together as hoped, they’ll probably title this year’s highlight film “Arm-ageddon.” You can never, after all, have too many arms in baseball — especially when they’re connected to torsos and legs and, better still, heads.

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About the Author
Dan Daly

Dan Daly

Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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