Young starting pitchers could serve bullpen apprenticeships

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The acquisition of Doug Fister and an impending spring training competition for the fifth starter's spot in the Nationals rotation has created a crunch for the young starting pitchers vying for a spot on the 25-man roster out of spring training.

While it wouldn't be surprising to see right-handers Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark or Nate Karns forming the bulk of the rotation at Triple-A Syracuse should they not make the major league club out of spring training, there's also the possibility one or more of the young starters could wind up in the Nationals bullpen.

Ineffectiveness in spring camp, a trade or an injury could certainly change things, but general manager Mike Rizzo seems at least willing to consider guys like Jordan, Roark or Karns as relievers should they force their way into the conversation with a strong spring.

"We're certainly open to it," Rizzo said. "The Braves of the past have certainly done a good job of that. The Cardinals of the recent past have employed that technique. It's a good apprenticeship at times. You can learn your craft."

It won't be easy for any of the aforementioned righties to displace a holdover reliever. Ross Ohlendorf would function as a long man and spot starter if he doesn't crack the rotation. Craig Stammen can pitch an inning at a time, in long relief or make an occasional start. Ryan Mattheus hopes to rebound from an up-and-down sophomore campaign. Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano seem to have the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, respectively, locked up.

But if Mattheus falters, or if Storen or Clippard are traded, a bullpen spot might open up. Rizzo expects to stretch Jordan, Roark and Karns out as starters in spring training, and said it would be easier for them to work in relief than it would be to have them pitch shorter stints in spring training and then stretch out if the need for a starter arises.

A couple of generations ago, young pitchers routinely pitched out of the bullpen early in their careers. Even if they pitched sporadically, they were able to learn a lot from veteran pitchers who worked in relief. It was baseball's version of on-the-job training. Now, the technique is used by only a few teams, mostly second-division clubs who take a chance on a Rule 5 pitcher and have to keep him on the 25-man roster all season long.

Rizzo sees value in the possibility of having Jordan, Roark or Karns pitch in that role if necessity and roster construction dictate.

"You can always go back to the starting rotation later on in your career," he said.

The Nationals have most of their starting five set, but lefty Ross Detwiler, Ohlendorf, Roark, Jordan and Karns are among those competing for the last spot behind right-hander Stephen Strasburg, lefty Gio Gonzalez, righty Jordan Zimmermann and Fister

The 26-year-old Roark made five starts among his 14 appearances last year, going 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA overall. As a starter, he was 3-1 with a 1.74 ERA and 0.903 WHIP. In six minor league seasons, he made 166 appearances, including 99 starts.

Karns, also 26, went 0-1 with a 7.50 ERA in three games - all starts - with the Nats after being recalled in late May from Double-A. Fifty-four of his 60 minor league appearances have been in a starting role.

Jordan, 24, had some tough luck and was 1-3 with a 3.66 ERA in six starts for Washington, while holding opponents to a .143 batting average. He finally got his first major league victory on July 28 - in his last game of the season in D.C. in a 14-1 shellacking of the Mets. In the minors, he's been primarily a starter, logging 65 starts in 72 career games since 2009.

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