For starters, Nats’ improved rotation has at least one too many arms

There’s no way around it: The Nationals have at least one more starting pitcher than spots in the vastly improved five-man rotation that will break camp from spring training in Viera, Fla., in early April.

“We have great depth in the starting rotation,” general manager Mike Rizzo said Friday night during a conference call to announce the trade for Gio Gonzalez. “We’ve got (Stephen) Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, John Lannan. We also have guys who can start and will compete for a starting job: Tom Gorzelanny (and) Craig Stammen. We know over the course of the season we’re going to need more than five starting pitchers. Everybody does. We feel we’re still very deep in starting pitching. We like the talent level of our starting pitching, and it’s going to be great competition to see who comes out of there as our starting five.”

The Nationals have come a long way from the days when they collected has-beens, hangers-on and basically anyone with arms attached to torsos for what amounted to open auditions at Space Coast Stadium. But now there’s no longer a need to hope they can squeeze another year out of Livan Hernandez or catch lightning in a bottle with the Mike Bacsiks and Daniel Cabreras of the baseball world.

And while Rizzo is correct - the same starting five is rarely used throughout the season without some tinkering caused by injury or ineffectiveness - there’s not as much competition in the offing as you’d like to think.

For starters, the top three are pretty much carved in stone with lefty Gonzalez fitting in nicely between right-handers Strasburg and Zimmermann. Mind you, Strasburg’s innings will be capped to protect him during the first full season in his recovery from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, and there’s no Brad Peacock or Tommy Milone around as a fallback, so the Nats will need someone come late August or early September to take over for Strasburg.

That leaves three pitchers - Wang, Lannan and Detwiler - for two spots (for the purposes of this argument, I’m already putting Gorzelanny in the bullpen and taking Stammen out of rotation consideration). And Rizzo pretty much told reporters that he expects at least one of the aforementioned trio to end up in the bullpen come opening day. Asked point blank if one of those three pitchers would be working in relief, Rizzo replied, “I think it’s fair to say.”

“I don’t see them not being on the big league club, but there’s going to be competition so we’ll see how that pans out during spring training,” Rizzo added. “But they’re three quality pitchers and if they’re not three of our best 12 pitches when we leave camp, we’re doing pretty good because they’re three quality major league pitchers.”

But is the Nationals’ new math - three pitchers for two spots - realistic? I think it’s more like two guys gunning for one opening and, barring a trade, Detwiler could be the odd man out.

Wang isn’t going to the bullpen. He’s made only five relief appearances in his 120-game major league career - one in his rookie season of 2005, a two-out effort that produced his long career save in 2006 and three more when he was trying to work out some mechanical problems in an injury-marred 2009 campaign. The numbers are a mixed bag - a 2.70 ERA but opposing batters have hit the right-hander at a .315 clip out of the ‘pen. I think we can all agree that his comfort level is as a starter, and I doubt he’d have re-upped in D.C. without some assurance that he’d working in a more familiar rotation role.

That leaves lefties Lannan and Detwiler; the former has never pitched in relief in 128 career games and the latter has excelled in the role in an admittedly small sample size. In 10 games out of the bullpen, the 25-year-old Detwiler has posted an 0.95 ERA, worked to a 1.10 WHIP and has held opposing batters to a .182 average.

Manager Davey Johnson likes Detwiler - a lot. Maybe too much to keep him in long relief. But keep in mind that Johnson is a product of an era in the game where starting pitchers routinely learned the game from afar, sitting in the bullpen and watching intently. That apprenticeship may not fit in today’s landscape, and Detwiler has already watched and learned for parts of four seasons since he was the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft. Detwiler is also out of options, meaning he can’t be sent to Triple-A without being exposed to waivers, and he’d be snatched up quickly by some pitching-starved club. But stashing Detwiler in the bullpen as a backup plan means he’s around if someone gets hurt, even if he and Gorzelanny appear to duplicate one another.

Lannan has topped 30 starts in three of the past four seasons - and only a seven-start stint at Double-A to work out some delivery kinks in 2010 prevented him from four straight. At 27, Lannan has developed into a credible back-of-the-rotation option, a guy who can be counted on for at least 180 innings, 30 innings and, if his team is lucky, double-digit wins. Those back-to-back opening day assignments in 2009 and 2010 are a distant memory with the ascension of Strasburg, the arrival of Gonzalez and the development of Zimmermann.

The logical solution for this miniature logjam is a trade. Lannan has more history, while Detwiler might offer more upside. It’s hard to part with a guy who can be counted on for 30 starts and nearly 200 innings. It’s harder to consider dealing youth when you’ve got less than you had a week ago. Each would be attractive and, in the right deal, could bring back a piece the Nationals need. The longer Rizzo waits, the more leverage he has. Say he takes both to Viera and just sits and waits until a team that fancies itself as a contender loses a pitcher. Suddenly, Rizzo is in the catbird’s seat and might exact a better price.

Rizzo’s right: The same starting five rarely lasts intact throughout a season without some backup being needed. But the projected Nationals’ rotation for 2012 - however you mash six pitchers into five spots - might not make it to spring training.

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