In 2009 and 2010, the Nationals gave John Lannan the ball as their opening day starter. On Tuesday, flush with quality pitchers, unwilling to use Lannan out of the bullpen and confident that he had been outpitched in spring training, they optioned the left-hander and his $5 million contract to Triple-A Syracuse.
Lannan's surprise demotion was the biggest of a series of transactions announced after the Nats' 8-7 loss to the Red Sox that got them down to the 25-man roster limit. The Nationals also selected the contracts of outfielder Brett Carroll and first baseman/outfielders Xavier Nady and Chad Tracy; placed closer Drew Storen (right elbow inflammation), right-handed starter Chien-Ming Wang (strained left hamstring) and outfielders Rick Ankiel (left quadriceps tightness) and Michael Morse (strained right lat) on the 15-day disabled list; placed right-handed reliever Cole Kimball (right shoulder surgery) and first baseman Chris Marrero (left hamstring surgery) on the 60-day DL; and released right-handed reliever Chad Durbin from his minor league contract and signed a major league deal with the Braves. The moves on Storen, Morse and Wang were made retroactive to March 26, while the Ankiel transaction was retroactive to March 28.
Eight days ago, manager Davey Johnson proclaimed Lannan his fifth starter, saying, "John's my guy." But stellar springs by left-hander Ross Detwiler and right-handers Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus - and the fact that Lannan was uncomfortable working out of the bullpen and still possessed a minor league option that would allow the Nats to send him down - conspired to squeeze Lannan out of the 25-man roster discussion.
"When I decided on Lannan staying in the rotation, Detwiler was having a better spring," Johnson said. "He had a better spring last year. We still don't know exactly how good Det can be. There's a window there. I think Chien-Ming's going to come back and be outstanding. It's kind of part of development. When a guy's screaming, 'I'm ready,' I had a change of heart."
That made a gut-wrenching conversation with Lannan even more difficult for Johnson. The manager had planned to meet with the southpaw Tuesday morning during pregame drills, put off his talk until just before gametime and said he eventually broke the news to Lannan in the third inning. Lannan, who Johnson said would be the opening day starter in Syracuse, had left Nationals Park by the time reporters were allowed into the clubhouse postgame.
"Lannan's not really suited to pitch out of the 'pen," Johnson added. "He also had an option (remaining). Wanted to keep all our quality pitchers in-house. (It was) very difficult decision, a tough one. I respect and like John Lannan a lot. It's really more about getting Detwiler an opportunity to get a few starts in before Chien-Ming comes back and retain John Lannan."
Johnson said he's sure the Nationals made the right calls in finalizing their roster.
"It's all about what's best right now for the organization," he said. "As tough as it was, it's the right decision."
Johnson estimates Wang will miss at least three or four starts while recovering from his hamstring injury, which opened the door for Detwiler, a 2007 first-round pick who has battled injuries but performed well late last season. During spring training, Detwiler went 1-1 with a 3.06 ERA in seven outings, including one start; Lannan was 1-1 with a 5.14 ERA in six games, four of them starts.
Detwiler was met in the dugout after pitching a scoreless sixth inning against the Red Sox by Johnson, who cracked wise about the perfect frame being a tune-up for the southpaw's next start. Detwiler responded with a quizzical look before being let in on the series of moves that landed him in the rotation.
"It kind of came as a surprise to me," Detwiler said. "But I'll take it."
Detwiler said the news was "bittersweet," considering his promotion came at the expense of someone he was close to.
"Johnny's a good friend, so you never want to see a good friend leave the clubhouse," Detwiler said. "It's kind of a business. It's definitely tough to see him go. He's a great pitcher and I have nothing but the best respect for him."
Johnson also feels strongly about Lannan, saying he has nothing to prove after exceeding 180 innings in three of the past four seasons and winning a career-high 10 games in 2011.
"He's a very luxurious insurance policy," Johnson said of Lannan. "He doesn't have to prove anything; he's a quality big league pitcher. I know what he can do."
With Lannan in the Syracuse rotation and Detwiler in the Nationals' starting five, Johnson needed another long man to pair in the bullpen with lefty Tom Gorzelanny. He found him in Stammen, who worked to a 1.98 ERA in eight spring relief outings and was ticketed to head to Triple-A to get stretched out in case the Nationals needed a starter.
While he was pleased for Detwiler, his running mate at Syracuse for part of last year, Stammen also lamented Lannan's empty locker stall across the clubhouse.
"It's unfortunate that John has to suffer from that, but that's the nature of the game," Stammen said. "Unfortunately, baseball isn't always as fun as it was when we were kids and there's a business part of it at this level. That's the tough part of today."
While Stammen's inclusion on the 25-man roster was a bit of a surprise, Mattheus thought he was battling Durbin for the final bullpen slot - until news in the middle of the game that the Braves had signed Durbin, leaving only one competitor in what was a two-man race. Johnson has long professed his desire to create a role for Mattheus, and Durbin's departure cemented one.
When approached by reporters after the game, Mattheus said he hadn't yet been informed he'd made the club, and he still talked in hopeful terms that he could, despite the fact that the roster moves had been announced.
"I haven't been told anything officially yet, but it is a big weight," said Mattheus, who compiled an 0-1 record and 3.86 ERA in a team-high 13 spring outings. "It's tough to pitch when you're trying to make the ballclub. It's always in the back of your mind when you're going out there to pitch. But this is a great ballclub and I'm honored to be on it if that's the case. "
Mattheus' stay could be short-lived. Storen said before Tuesday's game that he planned on returning to the active roster by mid-April. When Storen is activated from the DL, the Nationals will need to make a roster move to accommodate his return. Likewise, when Wang returns from the disabled list, Detwiler could be shifted back to long relief, creating a domino effect and bumping someone to the minors.
Lannan, the subject of trade rumors throughout spring, wasn't moved because the Nationals couldn't get a return they deemed sufficient. The lefty will continue to pop up in trade talks until he's either dealt or recalled, but general manager Mike Rizzo and Johnson repeated often during spring training that despite the Nationals' additions to their pitching staff that a team can never have enough quality arms.