The starting staff that general manager Mike Rizzo assembled for the 2013 Nationals is nothing short of remarkable. Up and down the rotation, there are pitchers who are, have been, or could be aces. The talent of Stephen Strasburg is obvious. If he hadn't been stopped because of an innings limit last season, Gio Gonzalez wouldn't have been the only Nat getting Cy Young votes. Strasburg's 11.13 strikeouts per nine innings would have been the 17th-highest in major league history - and this is a pitcher at the start of his career.
Following Strasburg in the rotation is the third-place finisher for the 2012 National League Cy Young. Despite Gonzalez having the most wins in the NL in 2012, the lower ERA and greater amount of innings pitched were enough for R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw to finish ahead of him. It would be assumed that a top five Cy Young finish is enough to make a starter worthy of being recognized as a team's opening day starter and best pitcher, but not when a team has Strasburg.
After Gonzalez comes the man who was thought to be the ace. When Jordan Zimmermann was drafted in 2007, he was labeled as having the upside and ceiling of a No. 1 starter, and proved it with a 2.80 ERA through 40 minor league games before getting called up in April 2009. While Zimmermann suffered the detour of Tommy John surgery that has become so familiar to today's starting pitcher, the Nationals drafted and debuted Strasburg. With the spotlight turned, Zimmermann faded into the background, but the talent remains, and was on full display in 2012 when he pitched 32 games with a 2.94 ERA and 3.56 strikeouts-to-walk ratio.
Zimmermann wasn't the only top of the rotation talent drafted in 2007. Ross Detwiler was taken ahead of fellow high-ceiling starters Madison Bumgarner and Jarrod Parker. The Nationals' scouts pegged Detwiler as the starter that had the most upside available at that pick, but it wasn't until last season that Detwiler put it all together pitching to a 3.40 ERA in 33 games split between starting and relieving.
Rounding out the Nats starting five is the most accomplished of the starters, Dan Haren. Haren has pitched a total of 1,876 2/3 innings and his career 4.01 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks fifth all time behind only Tommy Bond, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera. Haren's best days may be behind him, but in his prime he was often the best pitcher on his team even though he was forced into the back seat by the likes of Rich Harden and Brandon Webb.
The Nats have two pitchers that are aces, two that were drafted with the thought that they would be and still could, and one who was among the best pitchers in baseball although seldom being recognized for it. One outcome of a team like the Nationals having this much talent is that because Strasburg threw seven shutout innings against the Marlins on opening day, Gonzalez and Zimmermann want to do better, and at the very least want to keep the momentum going.
One dynamic Nationals fans could see in 2013 is the Nationals not just competing against other teams, but the starters always trying to one-up one another. It is rare that this much talent comes together on a single team. The Nationals have it and each one of them is going to want to not only be at their best, but to be better than the guy that pitched the day before. Strasburg was stellar on opening day, but Gonzalez finished third for the 2012 Cy Young, Zimmermann and Detwiler were drafted to lead the Nats rotation, and Haren wants to prove he is still among one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Even Strasburg, now unbound, has something to prove. Free of the much talked about and debated shutdown, Strasburg now has the opportunity to show baseball that, when given a full season, he will be one of the best. The men that follow him are no less free of motivation, as Gonzalez can show he was worthy of a top three finish in the Cy Young voting, Zimmermann and Detwiler can show their high ceilings can be reached, and Haren can show he is still one of the best.
The means, motivation, and opportunity exists for all five of the Nats starters to be great, and having to follow one another will only make them greater.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.