- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NEW YORK | At the beginning of the year, it was the key to whether the Washington Nationals would be improved enough to reach the realm of respectability. When that prospect had vanished by mid-May, it became the only reason to extract meaning out of the team’s season.

But now that the season is almost over, the progress of the team’s young starting pitchers is more than a little unclear. Washington’s best prospect, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, is laid up until next fall after Tommy John surgery. The other rookie in the Nationals’ rotation at the beginning of the year, Shairon Martis, was sent to Class AAA Syracuse in June and only regained his stride there late in the season. Craig Stammen, who had begun to emerge as a possible back-of-the-rotation fixture, saw his season end early because of elbow surgery.

The rest of the starters, most of whom have been in the organization for several years, have oscillated between promise and inconsistency. Of the other four starters Washington has called up this year - Collin Balester, Ross Detwiler, J.D. Martin and Garrett Mock - only Martin has an ERA under 5.00.

With the entire group, it’s difficult to distinguish hard-knocks learning from flat-out mediocrity. And yet general manager Mike Rizzo holds firm to the belief the group will be better for its struggles this year.

“I really am [satisfied], almost to a man,” Rizzo said. “By no means am I satisfied with the won-loss record and that type of thing. But the one thing I can take away from this season is we have five or six young starting pitchers that have earned their spurs on the major league level.”

What remains to be seen is how the Nationals proceed with the group headed into next year. John Lannan is assured a spot in the rotation. If Washington decides to offer Scott Olsen arbitration, knowing he’ll make at least $2.24 million coming off shoulder surgery, it stands to reason he’ll be in the rotation, as well. The Nationals are believed to want a veteran on the staff next year - possibly by bringing back Livan Hernandez - and the pressure to install No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg in the major league rotation will be immense.

Assuming Lannan, Olsen and another veteran are in the rotation, there are two spots for the other six pitchers the Nationals have used this year, all while Strasburg is gathering steam with every triple-digit fastball he throws.

That’s why the Nationals still view the last two weeks of the season as vital to figuring out what they have.

“You have to have a certain number of starts in the major leagues before you can be comfortable,” Rizzo said. “A lot of them have taken a big, broad step toward that.”

Detwiler, recalled this month to pitch out of the bullpen, will get at least one more start and possibly two. He allowed one run in five innings last week while showing less of the across-the-body mechanics he had reverted to earlier this season. Martin’s soft-throwing repertoire has actually produced solid results lately; in August and September, he’s 5-2 with a 3.42 ERA, having generated 52 percent more groundouts than flyouts.

“I’d just like to see a continuation of what he’s been doing,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “He’s pretty much a finished product in terms of what he throws out there, and his numbers indicate it’s pretty good.”

And Martis, who won five games before a tendency to nibble around the plate got him in trouble in the majors, was shut down after hitting a preset innings limit in September. Still only 22, he’s viewed by Rizzo as a strong candidate for a rotation spot again in the near future.

Balester and Mock are two of the more vexing pitchers in the group. Each has been touted as a future starter for several years, each has impressive stuff and each had made his major league debut before this season. Yet Balester was sent back to Class AAA Syracuse after seven starts with the Nationals, and Mock has a 5.61 ERA as a starter with a .374 on-base percentage against him.

His four-pitch arsenal is one of the best in the organization, but Sunday’s loss to the Mets was the first time in 16 major league starts that he had lasted through the seventh inning.

“He throws too good to flounder around with a losing record and a high ERA,” Riggleman said. “He needs to challenge more hitters. You can’t be afraid to give up hits. That’s being pounded into him by [pitching coach] Steve McCatty and everybody. When you feel like you’ve got strikeout stuff, sometimes you want to strike them out. He’s going to have to throw his two-seamer up there, get hit early in the count so his pitch count isn’t so high.”

The prospect of a six-man derby for a couple of rotation spots looks inevitable next spring. Rizzo, ever the believer in competition, hopes that will finish the process of identifying which pitchers are for real.

“The good thing we’ll have next year is we have a cluster of pitchers with options left,” Rizzo said. “If you don’t make it to the big leagues, you go down and perfect your craft in the minor leagues. It’s kind of the inventory we’ve built, and going into spring, we’re going to have a lot of competition for a lot of spots.”

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