Sorting out the Nats' overflow rotation

Sorting out the Nats' overflow rotation
February 3, 2012, 1:35 pm
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Trivia time: Can you name the five pitchers who made the most starts for the Nationals in 2010?

If you said Livan Hernandez (33), John Lannan (25), Craig Stammen (19), Luis Atilano (16) and Scott Olsen (15), congratulations. You remember the painful history of this franchise far too well.

Was it really less than two years ago the Nationals trotted out that less-than-inspiring rotation? Have they really managed in such short time to go from that to this: Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and either Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan or Ross Detwiler?

Any one of the three guys now battling for the final spot in the 2012 rotation would probably have been good enough to start Opening Day in 2010. Actually, Lannan did start Opening Day that year.

The progress Mike Rizzo has made to overhaul what was one of baseball's worst rotations to what now looks like one of its best is nothing short of remarkable. But that's not to say this projected 2012 rotation doesn't have its share of question marks.

Strasburg, as we all know, is on a 160-inning limit and will be shut down once he reaches that mark. Just as was the case last season with Zimmermann, who will be allowed to increase his workload but has yet to establish his ability to make 30 big-league starts or take the mound 30 times in one year.

Gonzalez has established himself as a 200-inning starter each of the last two seasons in Oakland, but the left-hander is about to pitch in the National League (not to mention a better hitter's park) for the first time, so there's no guarantee his numbers will stay the same.

Wang hasn't cracked the modest 100-inning barrier since 2007. And though he pitched well down the stretch last fall, there's still no telling how his surgically repaired shoulder will hold up over the long haul.

Lannan actually has the most consistent pedigree of anyone in the bunch, with an average of 30 starts and a 4.00 ERA over the last four seasons. The lefty, of course, is never going to amount to more than a back-of-the-rotation arm, so his ceiling hovers much lower than his teammates.

Detwiler, with a mid-90s fastball from the left side of the mound, still has a sky-high ceiling. The former first-round pick just hasn't shown those flashes for more than a handful of starts at a time.

Put that all together, and it's easy to understand why Rizzo wanted to swoop in yesterday and sign Jackson to a one-year, 10 million contract. Even if the right-hander really isn't a frontline starter.

Did you know Jackson and Lannan actually have remarkably similar stats over the last four seasons? Jackson's ERA: 4.06. Lannan's ERA: 4.00. Jackson's games started: 127. Lannan's games started: 122. Jackson's WHIP: 1.395. Lannan's WHIP: 1.418. Number of quality starts by Jackson: 69. Number of quality starts by Lannan: 68.

(Either Lannan doesn't get enough credit by the masses, or Jackson is overvalued. Probably a combination of the two.)

Still, Jackson does give the Nationals something they truly need: innings. The 28-year-old has averaged 32 starts and 202 innings since 2008. He also pitches deeper into games than Lannan, having reached the eighth inning 23 times during that span; Lannan has only done it 10 times.

And given the uncertainties spread throughout the rest of their rotation, the Nationals will happily take what Jackson can give them.

"You look at the other parts of our rotation," Rizzo said. "Stephen Strasburg's going to be on some sort of pitch limit. Jordan Zimmermann is coming off a 160-inning season and has never pitched 200 innings in the big leagues. Chien-Ming Wang coming off a couple years of inactivity and hasn't really stretched his arm out through a long period of time. We felt that we had an innings shortage."

Hey, if you've got an opportunity to assemble a seven-deep rotation that boasts quality arms from top to bottom, why wouldn't you go through with it? Especially when the total cost of those seven starters this year amounts to roughly 28 million. Find another club that's going to get more pitching bang for its buck in 2012.

There's just one problem: The Nationals can't keep all seven guys.

Perhaps they can stash one extra arm in the bullpen. But two? That doesn't look like a viable solution, especially when none of the bottom three starters (Wang, Lannan, Detwiler) profiles well as a reliever.

So that conundrum led to some obvious speculation yesterday that one of the three is going to get traded, with Lannan at the top of the list. It's a logical conclusion to draw, but is it the likeliest outcome to this surprising saga?

Not unless the Nationals are willing to give up Lannan for pennies on the dollar. How much market is there for a back-of-the-rotation lefty making 5 million, especially when everyone knows he's now expendable? The chance of Rizzo finding another GM willing to give up a starting center fielder for Lannan straight-up sounds pretty far-fetched.

If anything, Detwiler has more trade value than Lannan. He's two years younger, has a higher ceiling and can't become a free agent until 2016 (three years after Lannan is due to hit the open market).

Except all those reasons make Detwiler attractive to the Nationals to keep for the long-term. Which is something they've got to consider through this entire process.

Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez are all locked up for at least the next four seasons. Jackson and Wang, however, are on one-year contracts. Lannan is under team control for two more years. Detwiler is under control for five more years.

As much as Rizzo is attempting to assemble a roster that has a chance to win right now, he also says he's focused on building a club that can win for years to come. Tough to do that if you have to add two starting pitchers again next winter.

So what's the answer? For now, the Nationals appear willing to sit back and let this thing play out over its natural course. Team officials insist they're not suddenly desperate to trade away a starter and would be perfectly content to bring all seven guys to spring training and see how things shake out.

That's probably the wisest course of action, for a couple of reasons: 1) You never know who might come down with an arm injury after camp opens, justifying the need for an extra pitcher, and 2) The closer we draw to Opening Day, the more desperate other clubs become to fill a last-minute need. There should be more of a market for Lannan or Detwiler or Wang on April 3 than there is on Feb. 3.

"If all are healthy and we have an opportunity to make a trade to improve ourselves somewhere else, we'll certainly look into it," Rizzo said. "But I like the competition aspect of this. There's going to be a lot of good pitchers out there in spring training this year, and the best 25 guys will go north."

We all know that's rarely the case. Rizzo's task isn't necessarily to assemble the best 25-man roster for Opening Day. It's to stockpile the best 35-40 players who are going to be needed over the course of 162 games.

Only one franchise made it through 2011 using six starters (the Brewers). Only two others survived on seven starters (the Rangers and Phillies).

Suffice it to say, the Nationals are going to need a sixth starter this year. And they're going to need a seventh starter. And probably an eighth. And maybe a ninth. It's Rizzo's task to ensure his club has as many available arms as possible in case of injury or poor performance.

If someone makes him an offer he can't refuse for Lannan, Detwiler or Wang between now and the start of spring training, should he take it? Sure.

But the longer Rizzo is able to hold onto as many quality starting pitchers as he can, the better off he and the Nationals will be.