Last season the Nationals dipped into the minor leagues to stabilize a starting rotation that had not needed such help the year before.
That's a rarity in the major leagues. The 2012 Nats had five pitchers make 27 starts or more and only eight pitchers took the ball at all. Last year saw a return to reality. Ten different pitchers started games for Washington as injuries and innings limits forced a continuous search for a No. 5 starter.
That actually worked out relatively well for the Nats, who received strong performances from Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Ross Ohlendorf and Tanner Roark. That group solidified the back end of the rotation and helped keep Washington among the sport's best with a combined staff ERA of 3.60.
The presence of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann makes that a likely scenario again in 2014. But after adding veteran Doug Fister in a trade with the Detroit Tigers in January, it appeared the Nats would have even less need for those extra options.
Not so fast. Fister has made just one start this spring training as he deals with right elbow inflammation. An MRI showed no structural damage, which was a good sign. But after rest followed by three consecutive days of throwing off flat ground, Fister told reporters in Viera, Fla. on Thursday that he was still experiencing arm soreness. That's not a good sign.
Until Fister can get through a bullpen session pain free and make a handful of starts before the end of spring training, it's hard to predict his status for the first week of the season, which begins March 31 in New York against the Mets. Once again, depth could be a factor early in the season until the exact issue with Fister's elbow is diagnosed and fixed.
"I think what we want to do is we want to continue to develop," Washington manager Matt Williams said last month when asked about his options at fifth starter. "That takes in a lot of meanings. You look at last year, you say, 'Wow, did anybody anticipate Taylor Jordan being here or Tanner Roark being here?' You don't know."
Indeed, Jordan hadn't pitched above low-A Hagerstown entering last season at age 24. Roark was 26 and had just put up a 4.39 ERA at Triple-A Syracuse in 2012. Ohlendorf had the big-league experience, but was on his fifth organization and had recently toggled between the majors and the minors and become primarily a reliever.
All three helped Washington survive the loss of Detwiler to back problems that limited him to 13 games and the struggles of veteran Dan Haren, who was not re-signed and ended up with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But no season is a repeat of the previous year. Ohlendorf has already dealt with back spasms in spring training that have kept him out of action save for one inning. He did throw a bullpen session on Thursday, according to reports.
Roark and Jordan have limited track records – even if many in the organization are comfortable with both pitchers filling in again. But Jordan started nine games last season and Roark just five. Making sweeping judgments about either is foolish going forward. Roark has appeared in three games this spring with a 4.50 ERA. Jordan, who was on an innings limit last summer after Tommy John surgery the previous year, may have the inside track on the fifth starter's job if Fister isn't ready. He has a 3.86 ERA in three games so far.
That's assuming Detwiler, who has the best track record of any of these candidates, is the No. 4 without Fister. He hasn't looked sharp with a 6.43 ERA, but, when healthy, he's proven himself over a full big league season and in the playoffs. Detwiler has a 6.43 ERA in three starts.
Others to watch: Prospects A.J. Cole, 22, made huge strides last season after being reacquired in the Michael Morse trade. He's been re-assigned to minor league camp. Cole didn't allow a run in six innings in big-league camp. That's a good start. Danny Rosenbaum, 26, is an older prospect. But he posted a 3.87 ERA at Syracuse last year and allowed just one run in three spring appearances before being sent to minor-league camp.
In the long run, Fister might be fine. He told reporters in Viera he could pitch if it was the regular season. But after what happened to the Atlanta Braves this week, losing top pitcher Kris Medlen to what appears to be a torn elbow ligament, teams have to be ready. The 2012 Nats aside, what you start with is almost certainly not what you'll finish with.
"What we want to do is make sure that they're ready in case something happens," Williams said of his reserve corps. "We don't anticipate anybody happening, but you don't know. It's all about the process of making sure."
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