Who will start for Nats on opening day in Chicago?

When the Nationals open the 2012 season at Wrigley Field against the Cubs on April 5, there are pretty much guaranteed to be winds whipping around the ivy-covered walls and knocking around the pennants on the scoreboard in center field. But the guys from D.C. will be used to that by then, especially after spending most of spring training with an incessant question swirling around Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla.

Who’s the Nats’ opening day starter?

There’s little doubt that Washington’s rotation is vastly improved with the addition of lefty Gio Gonzalez and righty Edwin Jackson, via trade and free agency, respectively. They join holdover right-handers Jordan Zimmermann, who won’t be on an innings limit this season now that he’s a full season removed from Tommy John surgery, and Stephen Strasburg, who will be because he isn’t. Throw in veteran righty Chien-Ming Wang and the Nationals don’t even seem to have room for lefties John Lannan, Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Detwiler, or right-handers Craig Stammen and Yuneksy Maya.

It’s a far cry from the mound cattle calls of springs past.

But let’s be serious, the discussion concerning who takes the ball in Chicago on the season’s first Thursday afternoon really boils down to three names: Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez. No offense to Jackson or Wang, but they’re more back-of-the-rotation guys who will be counted upon to eat up innings and protect the bullpen from being overworked.

There’s a lot of sentiment for Strasburg to get the nod. In fact, he probably would have had Tommy John surgery not ruined his ascent into baseball’s stratosphere. He possesses the best stuff on the staff and has the aura of a No. 1 starter. And he will be - probably not this season, though. The Nationals need to protect his surgically repaired right elbow, and we discussed earlier this week a variety of ways they can do that. And as much as the Nats would like to trot him out to dominate the Cubs on April 5, it’s not the prudent move. The weather definitely factors in here; in fact, there are some in the organization that would like to see Strasburg skipped entirely during the first road trip through Chicago and New York, where early April temps can be brutal. If the Nats opened in Miami or another warm-weather climate, Strasburg might be the choice. But probably not this year.

Gonzalez is the flashy newcomer, and as a guy most of the National League isn’t familiar with, he could be a nice choice. His sample size against the Cubs is small - one game in which he lasted five innings and pitched to a 10.80 ERA, taking the loss - but the lefty is 3-3 with a 2.54 ERA in 10 career interleague starts while in Oakland. But if you throw Gonzalez in the opener, that leaves the possibility of four right-handers to follow, which tilts the advantage to an opponent with left-handed bats. He’d be better as the No. 2 man in the rotation at this point, splitting at least two of the righties.

That leaves Zimmermann, who is primed to build on a 2011 campaign where he went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA in 26 starts. With no innings limit this season, he can be turned loose. Scouts rave about his repertoire and his bulldog mentality. Rival general managers think he’s in line for a breakthrough season, just what the Nationals expected when they snagged him in the second round of the 2007 draft. Zimmermann’s an easy going enough guy that he wouldn’t be disappointed if the Nats bypassed him in favor of someone with more experience or flash, but he’s earned the honor.

Will he get it? We’ll see, once manager Davey Johnson starts penciling in pitchers to face Grapefruit League competition. Even if Johnson plays coy with his announcement of an opening day starter, we’ll pretty much know by the second week of spring training who’s in line for that start.

Whaddaya think?: If you’re Johnson, who takes the ball April 5 at Wrigley Field? Why? Would you risk pitching Strasburg in less-than-optimal weather conditions?

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