LAKELAND, Fla. - The competition to be the fifth starter in the Nationals rotation took an unexpected turn today, when manager Matt Williams announced that left-hander Ross Detwiler would start the season in the bullpen.
That leaves three right-handers - Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan and Chris Young - battling for the last spot in the rotation, the manager said.
"We've asked Ross to start our season in the bullpen," Williams said after the Nationals' scheduled game against the Tigers was cancelled by rain. "We feel like it's a good move for our team. He provides something special out of the bullpen for us. So we talked to him. I don't know if anybody would ever be really happy with something like that. We don't feel like it's a demotion of any sort; we just feel like we're a better team coming out of our bullpen."
Detwiler was thought to be the odds-on favorite to land the fifth starter's role coming into camp, but he was still competing with Roark, Jordan, Young and right-hander Ross Ohlendorf. But all have been plagued with either inconsistency or injury, and Detwiler did nothing to distinguish himself from the pack, pitching to a 6.43 ERA in three starts.
But while Detwiler has started more than he's relieved - 69 starts to a 17-29 record, 4.02 ERA and .277 batting average against - he's been extremely effective out of the bullpen. In 16 relief outings, he's posted a 1.11 ERA and .173 batting average against.
Williams called the decision more prudent than tough, and said that Detwiler didn't take the news well.
"He was not happy, but you wouldn't expect him to be," the manager said. "We told him this is something we feel is going to make our team better. We're here to win games, we're here to compete and to play meaningful games in September and October. He's going to be a major part of that out of our bullpen."
Detwiler is viewed by the first-year manager as a power lefty out of the 'pen, someone able to use his mid-90s fastball in a variety of roles. Williams said Detwiler could be used to face one batter, go an inning at a time or to work in long relief.
"(A) luxury for the manager," Williams said. "I think it's a luxury for our team to have a guy in the bullpen who can do all those types of things."
Moving Detwiler to a relief role means the Nationals will carry at least two lefties out of the 'pen - Detwiler and Jerry Blevins, acquired in an offseason trade with the A's. It could also make it more difficult for one of two left-handers - Xavier Cedeno or Michael Gonzalez - to break camp with the Nats.
Williams said he could go with a third left-hander in the 'pen, or make the final spot a right-hander. Righties Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Craig Stammen are expected to make the 25-man roster, so it sounds like Williams is expecting to take a seven-man bullpen north.
"That's open for discussion still," Williams said when asked if he could carry three southpaw relievers. "We'll determine that as we get closer. It could go either way."
But for now, Detwiler will pitch in relief - "unless something goes haywire from here on out," Williams said.
Detwiler's move to the bullpen could help Roark, whose scheduled Monday start was washed out, become the fifth starter. Williams said Roark would stay on turn by pitching in a minor league game Tuesday, which is the Nationals' first scheduled off-day of the spring.
"It's still good competition," Roark said. "I'm going to go out there and do what I know what I can do: Pitch with confidence and get outs, throw strikes and just let everything else fall into place. Not worry about who I'm competing against and anything like that."