- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

As soon as Washington Nationals team doctor Wiemi Douoguih began operating on pitcher Scott Olsen, a decision crystallized that could be one of the key points of the team’s offseason.

The 25-year-old left-hander was perhaps the centerpiece of a trade that brought him and outfielder Josh Willingham from the Florida Marlins for second baseman Emilio Bonifacio. But surgery Thursday to mend the small tear in his left labrum shut him down for the season, which ended after just 11 starts in four months.

Olsen’s left shoulder had given him trouble all year, first in the form of tendinitis that caused him to miss five weeks, then with the minor tear in the labrum. He had pitched at least 175 innings the previous three years, coming to the District having earned the reputation of a reliable innings eater.

But Olsen contributed just 62 2/3 innings this year. And now the Nationals will have to decide how many more innings they’re going to pay him to throw.

Consider the situation they’ll be in at the end of the season. Entering his second season of arbitration, Olsen is making $2.8 million this year. According to the collective bargaining agreement, he can’t take more than a 20 percent pay cut before next year, meaning the Nationals will pay him at least $2.24 million if they offer him arbitration for 2010.

If they do that, Olsen will be coming back from surgery (albeit a relatively minor operation, according to Douoguih) and competing for a spot in the rotation with John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann and a group that includes Craig Stammen, Garrett Mock, Collin Balester, Shairon Martis, Ross Detwiler, J.D. Martin and (presumably) Stephen Strasburg.

Olsen would unquestionably be the most expensive pitcher in that group (save Strasburg, if he signs a major league deal that at its most conservative estimate is sure to pay him at least what Olsen’s making). If Strasburg lands a package that pays him something in the neighborhood of $4 million or $5 million a season, it could crowd out Olsen’s figure even more and make the Nationals question whether he’s worth it.

If Olsen comes back healthy and pitches the way he did in brief flashes for the Nationals, he would be a bargain at $2-plus million - a reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter who, at top shape, can provide some consistency to a group that’s still going to be very young next spring.

And with Austin Kearns ($8 million), Dmitri Young ($5 million), Ronnie Belliard ($1.9 million) and possibly Nick Johnson ($5.5 million) coming off the books, the Nationals might have enough money to keep Olsen without his number hampering too much of what they would like to do this winter.

It all depends on what they’re getting, though: a consistent veteran or an injury risk. How they view that will dictate whether Olsen is brought back or nontendered.

If he is let go, it would also change the way Jim Bowden’s final big trade as general manager is viewed. The deal was essentially Jon Rauch for Olsen and Willingham; the reliever was sent to Arizona last July for Bonifacio. The way Rauch has pitched since leaving the Nationals (a 6.56 ERA for the Diamondbacks last year and a 4.25 ERA this year) has made it clear he was dealt at the top of his value - and there are still members of the Nationals’ front office talking about how well they fared selling high on Rauch.

And while Willingham has had a strong season, getting him for Rauch doesn’t look nearly as good as getting him and a consistent starter for Rauch. That will depend on how Olsen comes back - or, for that matter, if he comes back.

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