Finding innings for 10 potential starters is Johnson’s challenge

VIERA, Fla. - Nationals pitchers and catchers will work out for the first time this morning, and manger Davey Johnson will put into motion his plan to find enough innings to make sure all of his starting pitchers are ready for the 2012 season.

It won’t be easy. Quite frankly, the math doesn’t work in Johnson’s favor. He’s got 10 pitchers in camp who have started a game in the bigs in the past two seasons, and only five spots in the rotation. Figuring that his rotation will consist of lefty Gio Gonzalez and right-handers Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Chien-Ming Wang is only part of the solution.

So what becomes of left-handers John Lannan, Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Detwiler, and righties Craig Stammen and Yunesky Maya? Well, at least two of them will end up as long men in the bullpen. Ideally, Johnson would like both right- and left-handed long men who can also make a spot start if necessary. But since bullpens really require short men, and the Nationals are trying to make space for closer Drew Storen and setup men Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, Brad Lidge and Tyler Clippard, something’s gotta give.

Workouts are the first step in that process. Beginning today, two of the six groups of pitchers are comprised entirely of rotation candidates (Gonzalez, Wang, Strasburg and Stammen are in one foursome, while Zimmermann, Jackson, Detwiler and Lannan are in the other). Maya and Gorzelanny are each grouped with three relievers.

Johnson plans to stretch out his starting five - and his next five potential starters - at the same time. This ensures that all possible rotation candidates get enough work so that if there’s an injury or trade, someone’s ready to step in. Think of it as baseball’s version of football’s mantra of “next man up.”

“I can sleep better knowing I can make the proper decision during warmups if a guy can’t go. ... I know I can prepare another guy to handle that role that can probably give me four or five innings. I didn’t have that (last year),” Johnson said. “That said, 10 guys - I need to get 10 starters ready.”

Usually, Johnson would go into workouts this way: He’d use a four-man rotation so he could stretch guys out more easily, then piggyback the other available starters on the front four to work his long men. A couple of outings and his guys would be stretched to four innings or 60 pitches, and he’d be able to pick his five starters from those eight pitchers. Adding two additional pitchers to the mix doesn’t seem like a big thing, but it is - especially when he also has to find enough innings for the short relievers, setup men and back-of-the-bullpen types. The deeper he goes into Grapefruit League games, the more he has to work the starting pitchers, and the harder it is to find sufficient work for all involved.

Of course, there are creative solutions to create more innings. There are split-squad games, B games, minor league games - all can accommodate healthy pitchers in need of work. But Johnson will have to rely on the scouting reports and the eyes of others - unless he can come up with a way to clone himself so he can be in more than one place at one time.

Pitch counts dictate more these days than innings used to. Johnson will try to get 40-45 pitches the first time out, and hope his starters can last three innings. If not, he wants two innings out of his starters, then three out of his second unit.

“I’m going to do that for probably the first 10 games to get them ready,” Johnson said.”They’re competing for for the first five or the two (long men) out of the bullpen. So seven out of the 10 are guys that are candidates for me to make this ballclub.”

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