Arms race on the horizon

During the better part of last season, as well as throughout the Winter Meetings and offseason, it was widely agreed that when it came to improving the Nationals, offense was the answer.

True, some tweaks to the rotation were needed, but with a lineup that mustered a .242 batting average, 14th in the National League, as well as just 1,319 hits, 15th in the NL, hitting was thought to be the priority this winter.

Yet with only a few weeks left before spring training, the Nationals’ big moves this offseason have come almost exclusively on the mound. Bringing in starters Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, along with reliever Brad Lidge, has given the Nationals an impressive boost to an already pitching-rich squad. The only questions that remain are, how will the rotation shape up come spring time and will the surplus in arms be enough to push the Nationals to their first-ever playoff berth?

Regarding the first question, it all depends on how much you believe general manager Mike Rizzo’s view on starter John Lannan. The left-hander, who lost his arbitration hearing Thursday, has the stuff to be a starter in the back-end of any team’s rotation - including Washington’s - yet has been mentioned as the latest pitcher on the trade market.

During his conference call Thursday, Rizzo insisted signing Jackson was a move to relieve the pressures of his younger arms. Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann will be closely watched with their innings, while Chien-Ming Wang hasn’t started more than 15 games since 2007 with the Yankees.

Ideally, having seven quality arms on the staff - Gonzalez, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Wang, Jackson, Lannan and Ross Detwiler - won’t leave the Nationals searching for an arm should one or two of these guys suffer a setback.

As it stands, the opening day rotation should begin with Gonzalez at the top spot, with Strasburg, Zimmermann, Wang and Jackson rounding out the starting five. Lannan and Detwiler will certainly aim to change that, however, and with these young arms being watched carefully, you can bet this won’t be the rotation for the duration of 2012.

Looking at that rotation should make any Nationals fan giddy at the possibilities, but a lot will fall on the offense’s job to make sure some run support is provided. The Nationals didn’t really address holes throughout the lineup, leaving questions as to whether the offense will improve.

Jayson Werth should get better, simply for the fact that last season was so disappointing. Ryan Zimmerman - barring injury - will improve upon 2011, while Michael Morse and the possibility of bringing up slugger Bryce Harper give the Nationals a chance to really put some power in the bats to complement those arms. With Lannan on the trading block, too, another bat could be on the way, though Rizzo said Thursday he “didn’t acquire Edwin Jackson to trade another starting pitcher.”

We’ll see how this all develops in spring training, but it’s shaping up to be a memorable season for the Nationals. Fans should be excited at the possibilities and the competition for the starting rotation will be cutthroat and definitely the top story line heading into opening day.

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