- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Since pitchers and catchers reported more than a month ago, the Washington Nationals have spent considerable time trying to figure out which five starters will make their Opening Day rotation.

It has been an arduous process, with a pair of strong candidates emerging from the pack (Shawn Hill and Matt Chico) but plenty of others struggling to make a solid case for themselves (like Tim Redding and Colby Lewis).

When the Nationals break camp in six days, they hope to have settled on a quintet of arms that can keep them competitive in the National League East. But they also hope to have identified several others who can be counted on to join the rotation when needed down the road.

“Like I told you guys, we’re not looking for five,” manager Manny Acta said. “We’re looking for seven.”

Chances are Washington will need even more than that as the season plays out. The club used 12 different starting pitchers in 2006, a result both of injuries and poor performance on the mound.

And general manager Jim Bowden’s farm system wasn’t exactly overflowing with high-quality replacement options. In April 2006 alone, Bowden was forced to call up left-handers Billy Traber and Mike O’Connor (who had only four games of experience above Class A) and sign right-hander Zach Day off the scrap heap to join the rotation after a slew of injuries struck the major league squad.

One year later, are the Nationals better equipped to handle the inevitable pitching injuries and other calamities that will crop up? Yes and no.

“It’s a work in progress,” Bowden said before last night’s exhibition game against the Houston Astros. “A lot of our pitching prospects are at the lower levels working their way up. It’s going to take a while for it to be where we want it to be. … I think we’ve made progress.”

If nothing else, the Nationals should have a deeper pool of major league-ready pitchers to call upon than they did a year ago. In fact, vice president of player development Bob Boone said the organization likely will have more Class AAA starters than available spots.

Some of the losers for the final spots in Washington’s rotation (a group that could include Redding, Lewis, Jerome Williams, Joel Hanrahan and Jason Bergmann) will fill out the Columbus rotation, as well as younger pitchers like Beltran Perez and Josh Hall.

Bowden will choose from among those candidates when in need of a quick fix. All the while, though, he will be keeping an eye on the bigger names lurking in the lower levels of the organization’s farm system. And no name is bigger than Collin Balester.

The 20-year-old right-hander has been wowing club officials with his arm this spring, prompting some to wonder whether he will be ready to make the leap at some point this season (even though he made only three starts at Class AA Harrisburg last year).

“It’s tempting,” Bowden said. “Every time I go over to the minor league fields now, they blindfold me … because that’s how impressive he has looked this spring. We don’t want to rush him.”

In an ideal world, the Nationals won’t. But for an organization dead-set on building a young team capable of winning over the long haul, it actually could make more sense to promote one of the kids now and let him grow up in the major leagues.

“We’re not going to rule anything out,” Acta said. “Those guys are obviously part of our future. We trust the people down there, and they’re very high on those guys. If we’re going to have some journeyman up here getting beat up, we might as well develop a guy later in the year.”

That scenario also could come into play if two left-handers slated to open the season on the disabled list (O’Connor and Brandon Claussen) aren’t ready to return to the mound for a while.

The Nationals signed Claussen to a minor league deal over the winter knowing he wouldn’t be back from shoulder surgery until June or July. But O’Connor may not be ready until at least then himself. Despite early hopes he would bounce back quickly from offseason elbow surgery, Bowden said last night O’Connor will open the season on the 60-day DL (meaning he won’t even be eligible to return until June 1).

And then there’s always the possibility Bowden will find salvation from outside the organization, whether in the form of a free agent or a trade option. The GM has long espoused a motto that teams win with “pitching, pitching and pitching,” so perhaps he will be able to acquire some help.

“We’re always going to look to improve,” Bowden said. “We’re always hoping we can solve problems inside first. But we’re always going to be looking for starting pitching. It never ends.”

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