VIERA, Fla. - So it's down to three pitchers vying for the fifth starter's spot after Matt Williams announced Monday that left-hander Ross Detwiler, the presumed No. 5 heading into camp, would open the season as a multifaceted reliever.
Which of the remaining competitors, all right-handers, do you like? Is it the promise of Taylor Jordan, who sometimes looks equal to the task and at other times appears in need of more seasoning? Is it Tanner Roark, who did nothing last season but win and impress? Is it Chris Young, who was supposed to be in a similar battle last year that never really materialized?
Williams, pitching coach Steve McCatty and general manager Mike Rizzo have a decision to make. But let's be clear: They'll make the decision for the start of the season, but whatever they decide isn't written in stone for the next six months.
Let's examine the candidates, and see what each brings to the table.
The 25-year-old Jordan had never pitched above Double-A when the Nationals plucked him from Harrisburg in late June to make an emergency start. He acquitted himself well enough to finish with nine starts and posted a 1-3 record and 3.66 ERA. His fastball is live, but he's prone to nibbling, especially when he gets behind in the count, and hasn't learned to completely trust his stuff. That's why opposing hitters patiently waited him out last season, to the tune of a .291 batting average against.
This spring, Jordan has been a mixed bag, his last outing not as good as his first three. He's 1-1 with a 6.30 ERA in four games, two of them starts. Take out last Friday's effort - four runs on seven hits in three innings - and he's got a 1-0 record with a 3.86 ERA, which is pretty credible if you use Detwiler's 0-1 mark and 6.43 ERA in three starts as a baseline for comparison.
Williams likes Jordan, but after his last start, emphasized that the youngster still needs to emphasize his heavy fastball and use his breaking ball and changeup as complimentary pitches, not just offerings he relies on when his fastball command is spotty. The best place for him to work on that is Triple-A, which is why I see him starting the season at Syracuse - and being one of the first callups should a need arise.
Roark is a popular choice, and why not after he went 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA? He was 4-0 with a 1.91 ERA in nine August relief outings before starting five games in September. Put it all together and you've got a swingman with some strong peripheral numbers that suggest a late bloomer: a .202 batting average against, a .244 on-base percentage against and an 0.913 WHIP. It's tempting to project his 3-1 record and 1.74 ERA as a starter out over a full season, but his stellar relief work that got him noticed and earned him a chance to start.
Therein lies the problem. The Nationals value him for his versatility and he flourishes against right-handed hitters (.157 batting average against) and doesn't get raked by lefty swingers (.263 batting average against). There will be a spot open in the bullpen and it could be the 27-year-old Roark's for the taking. He can pitch multiple innings, holds opponents at bay long enough for his offense to go to work and he's got the trust factor working for him. To me, all of that adds up to Williams taking Roark north as a fifth righty in the 'pen, instead of keeping three left-handers.
Which brings us to Young, a 34-year-old veteran of nine seasons who last pitched in the majors in 2012 with the Mets. He was in Nats camp last spring, opted out of his minor league deal late in March and then re-signed with Washington, going 1-2 with a 6.81 ERA in three minor league starts during a season marred by thoracic outlet syndrome that necessitated surgery. The Nats were intrigued enough with the 6-foot-10 pitcher to re-sign him last season, and again to a minor league deal in November.
One look at Young and you'd think he's a power pitcher, but that's not the case. His fastball tops out in the upper-80s and he's made his living as a pitcher, not a thrower. And that may be what eventually makes him the choice as the No. 5 starter. The Nats are ripe with power arms, but Young gives them a different look because of his immense size and his precision repertoire.
Imagine slotting him in the rotation between No. 4 starter Doug Fister, the right-hander with the heavy sinker, and No. 1 starter Stephen Strasburg, the right-handed ace who has improved as a pitcher, but still throws gas with movement. Now imagine having the three of them (or, if you prefer, righty Jordan Zimmermann instead of Strasburg) in successive games. Hard, low sinker followed by pinpoint control from an unusually high arm angle followed by pure, nasty stuff. Hitters hate facing such a wide variety of pitching styles in the span of a few days, and that's an advantage the Nationals would like to exploit.
Again, the guy used the first time the Nationals need a fifth starter won't necessarily hold the gig for the entire season. But Rizzo last year signed veteran right-hander Dan Haren to a big-money deal to hold down the fifth spot in the rotation. It took Haren until the second half, and after a stint on the disabled list, to regain his form. Haren made $13 million and parlayed his rebound into a $10 million, one-year free agent deal with the Dodgers. Young will make $1.5 million in the majors, and incentives could push the value of his deal to $6 million; Jordan and Roark will earn around the major league minimum of $500,000 in 2014, having just barely exceeded the innings-pitched limits that cost them their rookie status.
There are strong cases to be made for all three candidates (and don't forget right-hander Ross Ohlendorf, who has fallen out of the competition for the fifth starter due to injuries this spring). Young may seem like a dark horse, but I think he could get the job.
Who's your pick, and why?
Today's quote of the day, written atop the daily schedule sheet: "Mental toughness is essential to success."