Thinking differently about the back of the rotation

Each of the last two offseasons, the Nationals have added a veteran right-handed starter to complement the back end of their rotation.

Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren were supposed to provide experienced, talented options behind a rotation of fairly young starters. They got $11 and $13 million, respectively, and were counted on to make big things happen to help the Nats get over the edge.

It’s safe to say that didn’t happen.

Jackson went 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA in 189 innings in 2012 and allowed four runs over five innings in Game 3 of the 2012 National League Division Series against the Cardinals, and Haren went 10-14 with a 4.67 ERA in an up-and-down 2013 campaign.

This offseason, the Nats have the luxury of not necessarily needing to add a veteran starter at a high price tag to give them depth to the rotation. Thanks largely to the emergence of a couple of young starters who got their feet wet in the big leagues this season, the Nats have options when it comes to the rotation this offseason.

Tanner Roark went 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 53 2/3 innings (14 games, five starts) and Taylor Jordan went 1-3 with a 3.66 ERA in 51 2/3 innings (nine starts) in their first tastes of the majors this season.

Add in Nathan Karns, who put up a 7.50 ERA in three starts with the Nats, and guys like A.J. Cole, Matt Purke and Sammy Solis, who are that much closer to the big leagues, and it makes things a little different for general manager Mike Rizzo when it comes to evaluating how he wants to attack the back of the rotation this offseason.

“I think it does, because the guys are closer now,” Rizzo said late in the season. “We see what we referred to last year as the next wave - well, that wave is about major league ready in ‘14, whereas last year we had a little bit of a gap because of the Gio (Gonzalez) trade, where you lost some depth with the Tommy Millones and the (Brad) Peacocks, that sort of thing, in the trade.”

None of this, of course, is to say that the Nationals can’t or won’t look to add another starter via a trade or the free agent market this winter.

They still have the resources to drop $10 million or more per year on a starter if they feel that he’ll give them what they need for 2014, or attempt to package some of their young, developing talent and deal for another established guy to stick behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann.

But it’s clear that Roark, Jordan and the others give the Nats options.

A lot of what happens this offseason might depend on how the Nats view Ross Detwiler and his ability to stick it out over the course of a full season next year after an injury-plagued 2013. Detwiler made just 13 starts this season largely due to a lingering back injury that cost him the final half of the season, and if the Nats aren’t confident that Detwiler will be able to return and pitch a strong, full season in 2014, they’ll need to add another starter some way or another. You can’t go into spring with three proven starters, one guy you might not have faith in and two fairly unproven guys at the big league level.

But if the Nats are confident Detwiler will be able to bounce back health-wise, take the next step in his development and continue to have success in the rotation, then they can approach the No. 5 spot in the rotation a number of ways.

Roark and Jordan can come to camp battling it out for the fifth spot, and the next wave of young, talented starters is a year further along in their development as they look to make an impact at the big league level.

That’s something the Nationals didn’t necessarily have the last two years, and if Rizzo decides not to spend eight figures on another starter this offseason, that’s money that can be spent elsewhere as the Nats look to bolster their bench and bullpen for 2014.

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