Dave Nichols: Fifth spot in rotation a headache for Nationals

In no uncertain terms, Dan Haren has been an unmitigated flop for the Nationals this season. The 32-year-old veteran right-hander, signed to a one-year, $13 million contract over the offseason, has shown moments of competency, as in his four-hit, one-run win over Atlanta on May 2. But more often than not, he’s been pounded by opposing batters, having lost his last six decisions. The Nats have not won a game he’s started in his last eight starts.

The move to officially place Haren on the disabled list came Tuesday, though it was widely reported following Haren’s latest disaster start Saturday, where he gave up six runs on seven hits - including his league-leading 19th homer allowed - in just 3 1/3 innings, an eventual 7-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies. After that game, when asked by reporters the reason he was being placed on the DL, Haren replied, “I don’t know, what’d they say?” He then followed with,”There’s aches and pains. Nothing I haven’t pitched through in the past. Physically, I’m OK.”

The Nats officially placed him on the DL on Tuesday with “right shoulder inflammation,” according to a team press release. Haren had an MRI on his shoulder Monday, which reportedly showed no structural damage. He’s eligible to return to the Nats on July 8 and while the team plans on resting him through the All-Star break, Haren wants to rejoin the active roster at the first opportunity.

But should he?

Haren’s atrocious numbers this season speak for themselves. He’s 4-9 with a 6.15 ERA, easily worst among qualifiers in the National League. Though he’s been very stingy in allowing free passes (1.4 walks per nine innings, the second-lowest rate for his career), opposing batters are putting everything in play against him, as his 11.5 hits per nine inning and 2.1 homers per nine inning will attest to. His fastball velocity has dropped to the point where his three pitches are only separated by 5 mph, which isn’t enough to keep big league hitters off balance. His cutter, normally a weapon, has been batting practice this season at 85 mph.

If Haren were a 26-year-old in his second or third season in the big leagues, he would have been sent down weeks, if not months, ago.

There are three problems to cutting bait with Haren though. First, and most onerous, is his paycheck. The Nats are on the hook for that $13 million regardless of whether he plays or not. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and the team wants - needs - to be absolutely certain that they did everything to maximize the potential of that investment before taking the loss. Second, Haren’s track record indicates he’s not a bad pitcher. To the contrary, he’s been consistently excellent throughout his 11 year Major League career. It’s not like he’s 38, trying to cling to the remaining shreds of his career.

Lastly though, and the ultimate reason we will continue to see the Nats give Haren every opportunity to resurrect his season: There really is no one else. Within the organization, the dearth of major league-ready arms is readily apparent. The Nats stockpiled a couple of veteran arms at Triple-A Syracuse for this contingency, but almost all have flopped in the minors. Only Ross Ohlendorf, currently the Nats’ long man in the pen, showed signed of being able to contribute. And his track record, despite his early success with the Nats, is well-documented.

The Nats have already reached into Double-A for a starter this season - Nathan Karns jumped past Triple-A to make his major league debut after putting up lofty numbers for Harrisburg while Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler were on the DL, only to get pounded in three starts over 12 innings for the big club.

Now it appears the Nats will be reaching down two levels again for their starter for Saturday. Taylor Jordan, 24 and yet another Tommy John survivor in the Nats’ fold, is 7-0 with an 0.83 ERA in nine starts (7.2 K/9, 1.5 BB/9) since being promoted from Single-A Potomac earlier this season. That’s right, the Nats might start a guy who has made just nine career appearance above Single-A to start against the division-rival Mets on Saturday.

If Strasburg and Detwiler are healthy and can get back to producing like they did before their injury, and Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez continue their consistent excellence, the Nationals have as solid a four-man rotation as any in the game. They only need their fifth starter to not drag the team down like a weighted anchor. Can they find that guy before this spring of expectation turns into a fall of bitter disappointment?

Editor’s note: Dave Nichols is pinch-hitting for Rachel Levitin of We Love DC today, and will rejoin the MASNsports.com guest blogging rotation in the season’s second half, writing every Monday beginning July 22.

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the “Nats Nightly” Internet radio show. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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.

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