LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The Nationals have four of their starting pitchers set and locked in for 2014, but they're going to go into spring training still unsure of who will be that fifth guy.
That's the way general manager Mike Rizzo wants it, even if left-hander Ross Detwiler - an experienced option who has claimed the No. 5 spot in the rotation the last two seasons - is totally healthy after missing much of the 2013 season on the disabled list.
"He's going to come to spring training as a starting pitcher and he's going to compete for that fifth spot with the Tanner Roarks and the (Taylor) Jordans and the (Nathan) Karns' and that group," Rizzo said yesterday.
That said, while Rizzo has now made it clear on multiple occasions that Detilwer is going to have to earn his place in the Nationals' starting rotation in 2014, it's also clear that he knows that Detwiler might be his best option, if the left-hander can prove he's healthy and win the job.
Detwiler is coming off a season in which back and oblique injuries essentially cost him his year, but Rizzo has gotten a sample of what Detwiler can do when he's on his game. Detwiler put up a 3.40 ERA in 2012 in his first extended stretch in the Nats' rotation and had a 2.53 ERA through his first seven starts in 2013, before injuries became an issue. And that tease has left the Nats' general manager wanting more.
"What he's shown is that a healthy Ross Detwiler is a really good major league starting pitcher," Rizzo said. "We think he's 100 percent healthy coming into spring training and hopefully he takes it. I'd like to see what a 30-start Ross Detwiler looks like."
While Rizzo listed Roark, Jordan and Karns as three guys who will compete with Detwiler for the final spot in the rotation, Ross Ohlendorf is also an option there. Rizzo said that Ohlendorf, who posted a 3.28 ERA in 60 1/3 innings with the Nats in 2013, is someone who will also battle for a starting job, but Ohlendorf's experience serving as a long reliever might actually hurt him in his case to make the Nats' rotation out of camp.
"He'll be in the mix, but he also has the flexibility and has had success as a long man in the big leagues," Rizzo said.
Rizzo has mentioned Sammy Solis' name a handful of times when talking with reporters over the last few weeks, saying that the 25-year-old, who was just added to the Nats' 40-man roster this offseason, could be a valuable piece at the big league level in the not-too-distant future. Rizzo has specifically said that Solis could be in the mix for a bullpen spot, following the pattern the Cardinals have used with their young arms of letting them learn the ropes at the big league level while in the 'pen.
The bullpen might be where Solis makes his first appearance in the majors, but that's not where he'll start the 2014 season.
Rizzo said that Solis will come to spring training as a starter and will be stretched out, "but down the road, if we need to reach for a left-handed pitcher that can compete in the big leagues and he's pitching well and showing that he's ready for the big leagues, I would have no qualms about reaching down and grabbing him to help us in the bullpen."
Meanwhile, even though Rizzo said yesterday that he isn't actively looking for a backup catcher on the free agent or trade markets, it's important to look a little closer at Rizzo's comments before ruling out a new acquisition on that front.
Rizzo downplayed the idea the Nats will try and acquire a veteran catcher to back up Wilson Ramos, saying that Jhonatan Solano or Sandy Leon is capable of taking on that role. But there's an aspect of what Rizzo said that I want to focus on.
"I think going into spring training right now," Rizzo said, "I think we're comfortable with what we've got because we do feel that Ramos is 100 percent healthy. ... If Wilson's your everyday guy, we're very comfortable with Solano or Leon as a backup."
The problem there is that you obviously have no assurances that Ramos will stay healthy over the course of the entire season. Yes, if Ramos is able to avoid the disabled list, the Nats might be OK with Solano or Leon as the No. 2 catcher, seeing as how they would probably be in the lineup just once a week. But the Nats also need to protect against the possibility that Ramos suffers another injury that knocks him out for an extended stretch.
Rizzo pointed out that the Nats went out and acquired Kurt Suzuki two years ago when Ramos blew out his knee, and said such a move could be made again in a pinch. But you can't assume that quality catchers like that will be available if you get put into a tough spot due to another injury, and even if they are, you risk other teams demanding too much in return, knowing you're desperate.
For that reason, I don't think that the Nats are ready to have Solano or Leon as the backup catcher on the big league roster. They might compete for the job in spring, but I see the Nats probably adding a veteran backstop that can add more insurance and leave Matt Williams a bit more protected in the case that Ramos does land on the DL again.