Do Nats actually have too much pitching?

Do Nats actually have too much pitching?
January 27, 2012, 1:42 pm
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It's a tired cliche among baseball folks: "You can never have enough pitching." Yes, it's true. No team has ever been hurt by having too many good pitchers on its staff.

But sometimes too much pitching can lead to some potential problems, and the Nationals could find themselves in such a scenario come late-March.

Yesterday's signing of Brad Lidge added yet another accomplished arm to a pitching staff that already looked both strong and deep, and it perhaps caused some people to pause and wonder if the Nationals are going to have enough spots on the Opening Day roster to accommodate everyone deserving of a job.

Let's run through all the pitchers on the 40-man roster, broken down into starters and relievers...

STARTERS
1. Stephen Strasburg
2. Jordan Zimmermann
3. Gio Gonzalez (L)
4. Chien-Ming Wang
5. John Lannan (L)
6. Ross Detwiler (L)
7. Tom Gorzelanny (L)
8. Yunesky Maya
9. Matt Purke (L)

RELIEVERS1. Drew Storen
2. Tyler Clippard
3. Brad Lidge
4. Sean Burnett (L)
5. Henry Rodriguez
6. Ryan Mattheus
7. Craig Stammen
8. Ryan Perry
9. Cole Kimball (Inj)
10. Atahualpa Severino (L)

Now, it's hardly unusual for the Nationals to have 19 pitchers on the 40-man roster entering spring training. They've had plenty more in the past. (Remember the 2007 rotation "battle" that featured John Patterson and 12 guys fighting for the other four jobs?)

But it is unusual, for this franchise, that so many of those 19 pitchers would come to camp truly deserving of a spot on the Opening Day roster.

So, how do the Nationals pare that list of 19 down to the 12 guys who will actually make the squad? Well, we can eliminate a few of them right off the bat. Kimball is rehabbing from rotator cuff surgery and won't be ready to return until at least the All-Star break. Purke has yet to throw an inning of regular-season professional ball. Maya is ... well, we've seen enough the last two years to know what he is.

So that brings the number down to a more manageable 16. Except it starts getting a lot more difficult crossing off names at this point.

Three rotation spots are already set in stone: Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez. General manager Mike Rizzo said last month the remaining two spots would be up for grabs among the trio of Wang, Lannan and Detwiler. Common sense suggests Wang and Lannan are clear frontrunners for those spots, based on the fact neither profiles well as a reliever, not to mention the fact they're making starter money: 4 million for Wang and either 5 million or 5.7 million for Lannan (who is headed to arbitration).

Detwiler, who has only two years of big-league service time, doesn't make near as much money as his counterparts. He also doesn't profile well as a reliever. Ideally, he'd open the season at Class AAA Syracuse, but he's out of options and thus can't be sent to the minors without first being exposed to waivers. So the Nationals probably have no choice but to put him in the bullpen as a long man.

This is where things start getting really complicated and open roster spots become hard to find.

The top five relievers listed above are all essentially guaranteed jobs. Storen is the closer. Clippard is an All-Star setup man. Lidge is the veteran mentor who could step in to close in a pinch. Burnett is the top lefty and is making 2.3 million this year. Rodriguez has the best arm of the entire bunch and is out of options.

Which leaves only one remaining spot on a 12-man pitching staff. A spot that seemingly has to go to Gorzelanny. Why? Did we mention he and the Nationals just recently agreed to a 3 million contract.

There is another legitimate reason for both Detwiler and Gorzelanny to make the club, even if they're not in the Opening Day rotation. The Nationals know they're going to need more than five starters over the course of the season. That would be the case for any team in any given year, but it will especially come into play this year because of the innings limit on Strasburg (roughly 160) and the fact Wang hasn't surpassed 95 innings since 2007 with the Yankees (before a shoulder injury derailed his career).

And the Nationals don't have many viable starting options waiting in the wings at Syracuse. Remember, they just traded away Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone to get Gonzalez. They also lost Brad Meyers to the Yankees in the Rule 5 draft (though it's possible, maybe even probable, they could get him back at some point).

So, Detwiler and Gorzelanny (and to a lesser extent Maya) are the Nationals' primary starters-in-waiting in case of injury or other issue.

(Since we're sort of on the topic, I know many have wondered whether the Nats might figure out a way to shut down Strasburg in midseason in an attempt to save his innings for September ... and perhaps beyond. Don't count on that. A club official all but ruled out that possibility yesterday when the subject was raised. As he pointed out, shutting down any pitcher in midseason would then require him to start all over again as though he was going through spring training. That process would take a month, and the Nationals have no intention of screwing around with Strasburg's development like that.)

What's the end result of all that? Well, the Nationals are looking at a scenario in which they're going to have to carry two left-handed starters in their bullpen as long relievers. And there doesn't appear to be any room for a couple of young right-handers who pitched quite well last season: Mattheus (2.81 ERA in 35 games) and Stammen (0.87 ERA in seven games).

Fortunately for the club, both Mattheus and Stammen have options, so they can open the season at Syracuse and be called upon when needed. The same applies to Perry (acquired from the Tigers in exchange for Collin Balester, who was out of options) and Severino (3.86 ERA in six games).

Is it possible the Nationals could look to trade away someone to help clear up a spot somewhere on the pitching staff? Sure, though when asked about this potential dilemma yesterday, general manager Mike Rizzo indicated he doesn't feel like he has to make a move at this point.

"We certainly have enough roster spots for them," Rizzo said. "We never have enough quality arms and quality, talented players. We like the depth we have, the fact that we have options on players. And we like the fact that we're a deep ballclub with more players coming.

"It's a good situation. Competition is always good. The best 25 are going to go north, and we'll see who that is during spring training. But I like the competition aspect. I like the fact that we are deep in the rotation and in the bullpen with power arms and with young players coming. So I like the situation we're in."

An excess of quality pitching. Honestly, who wouldn't like to be in that situation?