- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

The Washington Nationals knew in spring training that their pitching staff bore little resemblance to the one that carried them through much of last season.

But if nothing else, the Nationals did feel like they had two sure things at the top of their revamped starting rotation: Livan Hernandez and John Patterson.

They were wrong, and now they’re paying for it.

What should have been a reliable 1-2 punch on the mound has been a disappointment. Hernandez hasn’t pitched this poorly since 2001 with the Giants. But at least he’s pitching, something Patterson isn’t doing right now.

Hernandez’s issues, both physical and mental, have been addressed ad nauseam. Patterson’s case, however, remains an enigma.

Everything seemed to be going well for the 28-year-old right-hander. He had a fabulous spring, struck out a career-high 13 against the Marlins on April 15, then dominated the Braves six nights later at RFK Stadium.

And then … well, word came down Patterson had been battling some tightness in his right forearm. It wasn’t thought to be serious, and initially Patterson was to be pushed back just one day. But that soon became one week. Then he was placed on the DL, with a May 13 target date for his return. That then became May 18. And now it’s become June 1.

At the earliest. Who knows what kind of shape Patterson’s arm will be in at that point?

So what’s really going on? Can a strained forearm really keep a pitcher out six weeks? Is the injury perhaps more serious (which may explain why Patterson visited esteemed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., last week)? Is Patterson’s tolerance for pain just not strong enough?

This much is clear: All parties involved are frustrated. Patterson says he wants to pitch. General manager Jim Bowden says Patterson could pitch if the Nationals were in the middle of a pennant race, but the club doesn’t want to jeopardize his future.

But what kind of future does Patterson have? He perpetually displays his immense talent and ability to dominate, then induces cringes every time he gets hurt or fails to show the intestinal fortitude expected from a majorleague ace.

Patterson and the Nationals may be concerned about his long-term future, but they may be dealing it a significant blow right now with their cautious approach.

Patterson is going to be eligible for arbitration for the first time after next season. He’ll be a free agent three years later. As one former big-league pitcher and astute Patterson observer recently said: “What he needs to do right now is make 100 starts over the next three seasons. It doesn’t matter how many games he wins. If he can just prove he can stay healthy enough to pitch every fifth day, he’ll get a big contract.”

But will he get it from the Nationals? And will he still be a part of the organization when that time comes? Washington’s GM, whether it’s Bowden or not, would be foolish not to lock up a supremely talented pitcher like this … unless there’s genuine concern he’s never going to be able to stay healthy or that he doesn’t possess the other intangible qualities a team needs from its ace.

The Nationals know Patterson is capable of dominating opposing teams. What they don’t know is if he’s capable of doing it over the long haul. And there’s no way to find that out if he’s on the DL.

One way or another, this club is going to have to make a decision on this tantalizing, yet baffling, pitcher. Is John Patterson a part of the organization’s long-term plans? Or is he just part of the current problem?

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