- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2011

VIERA, Fla. | The lockers for the first four members of the Washington Nationals’ 2011 starting rotation line up one right next to another inside the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium.

With more than 5,000 innings pitched among them, Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, John Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann make up a group of pitchers the Nationals have lauded this spring for their experience, their control and their ability to, very simply, “make pitches.”

And while all four of those pitchers, along with likely No. 5 starter Tom Gorzelanny, do indeed bring those qualities to the table, a few stalls down sits a constant reminder of what none of those first four can provide: They’re not Stephen Strasburg.

While Strasburg continues to undertake the arduous task of rehabbing his precious right elbow after Tommy John surgery last September, the Nationals must go on without him, and that means going on without a traditional No. 1 starter.

“Losing Strasburg, that’s a true No. 1,” Marquis said. “There really aren’t too many true No. 1’s in Major League Baseball. You could maybe count seven or eight guys that are true No. 1’s. After that, it’s how the other guy’s pitch.

“But if we have five guys that are capable of being 2’s and 3’s … we could do some good things.”

The Nationals have no choice but to count on it.

While every effort was made this offseason to lure Cliff Lee to Washington as a free agent or to coax Zack Greinke away from the Kansas City Royals via trade, the Nationals were unsuccessful. Filling that vacancy instead falls on the shoulders of the rest of the team’s starters.

“Everybody says that, ‘Front of the line starter,’” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “So who was out there? Cliff Lee? There are very few guys. It’s hard to do. … The effort was made to do it, but we just couldn’t.

“Do I feel disappointed? Do I feel lacking? No.”

What the Nationals do have is a future front-end starter in Zimmermann, now more than 18 months removed from his own Tommy John surgery. Add a fully healthy Marquis, who would like to contribute numbers closer to his traditional norms, and Washington would, in Lannan’s estimation, “eliminate any questions about our rotation” when factoring in Hernandez and Lannan himself, two pitchers whose work consistently hovers around the National League averages.

They also have more depth than they’ve had in recent years. The competition among Gorzelanny, Ross Detwiler, Yunesky Maya and Chad Gaudin for the team’s fifth rotation spot is evidence of that, regardless of the fact that Gorzelanny was given a significant head start. It’s an upgrade over the likes of Scott Olsen (4-8, 5.56 in 2010), Luis Atilano (6-7, 5.15) and J.D. Martin (1-5, 4.43).

For the first time in quite a while, the Nationals have the luxury of being able to choose from talent, even if it is back-of-the-rotation talent.

“Guys we’re not even thinking about, who aren’t even on the landscape, were guys we were counting on in the past,” general manager Mike Rizzo said.

By the numbers, the improvement may not be all that significant. If all five starters, including Gorzelanny, pitch to their career averages, the Nationals’ staff would end up with an estimated 50-60 record and an ERA around 4.50 - not exactly eye-popping numbers.

But when the average ERAs among pitchers who made 10 starts or more on the past four Washington staffs have been at 4.80 or higher (and in 2009 hovering around 5.00), with records that feature 20 and 30 more losses than wins, those projected numbers would be a significant step forward.

Jordan Zimmermann could be a No. 1 starter,” McCatty said. “On most staffs, a No. 2. … He has the stuff to win a lot of games. I’m confident with that. I’m confident with Lanny; two years he had great ERA (3.91 in 2009, 3.88 in 2008). Marquis [has] won 15 before, and Livo is Livo. You’re going to get 200 innings out of him, and he doesn’t miss starts.”

Still, in a division that has the Philadelphia Phillies lining up Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels as its top four, it’s easy to find the Nationals’ crop underwhelming by comparison.

Lamenting that fact, however, is an exercise in futility for the current staff.

“We didn’t get a so-called No. 1 starter,” Lannan said. “But I think we have enough talent and ability to compete with any rotation out there. … The fact of the matter is, we didn’t get one so we’ve just got to keep on pitching. It would have helped, sure, but at the same time, we’re fine where we’re at.”

“We have what we have,” Marquis said. “We’re excited.”



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