WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - His face looks a bit older, his body a bit thinner, his stilted Long Island accent same as it ever was. Once he put the red curly W cap on his head, it was like John Lannan had never left. Even though he did.
Four years and four different organizations since he last wore a Nationals uniform, Lannan is back with the franchise that made him part of its original 2005 draft class, the franchise that called him up to make his major league debut only two years later, the franchise that handed him the ball on opening day twice ... and the franchise that unceremoniously dumped him after a falling out, turning this onetime rotation stalwart into a baseball journeyman.
“All I feel about when I come here is, this kind of like home to me,” the left-hander said Thursday morning inside The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the Nationals’ new spring training complex. “I’ve been here for so long. Even though this (the complex) is new. This isn’t home at all. It’s like a new home with the same family.”
Lannan said this with a wide smile and a twinkle in his eye. This is cool for him, not to mention totally unexpected.
How exactly did the 32-year-old pitcher, who hasn’t appeared in a game for the Nationals since 2012 and hasn’t appeared in any big league game since 2014, wind up back with his original employer, only this time as a sidearm-throwing reliever?
He paused, then explained: “It’s kind of a long story.”
We’ll try to offer up the condensed version, then ...
After getting non-tendered by the Nationals following the 2012 season, Lannan bounced around. He made 14 starts for the Phillies in 2013, then five relief appearances for the Mets in 2014, dealing with injuries along the way. He spent both 2015 and 2016 pitching in Triple-A, first for the Rockies and then the Royals, each time racking up 145-plus innings but posting ERAs over 5.00.
His velocity diminished, his confidence waning, Lannan was running out of options. But while pitching in the Dominican Winter League, he found himself lowering his arm angle, throwing from the three-quarter position instead of straight overhand.
Upon returning to his home in Tampa, Lannan threw a bullpen session in front of a scout. The scout put down his radar gun after a few less-than-optimal fastball readings, then offered up his honest opinion: If you keep on throwing the way you’re throwing, you’ll never get back to the big leagues.
“Sometimes you need that feedback,” Lannan said. “Even though it’s hard to swallow, you’ve got to take it and learn from it.”
The scout had a radical suggestion for Lannan: Try throwing sidearm. Funny thing is, Lannan had already had that thought himself, wondering if the change in arm angles might be worth it as a last-ditch attempt to continue his career.
“It was his professional eye that kind of made sense of what I was feeling, what I was doing the last few years,” the pitcher said. “And it really opened my eyes to something new that I should probably try.”
Lannan immediately got to work on the new motion, slowly dropping his arm angle lower and lower until he got to what he describes as a full-fledged sidearm delivery. He asked around to find out if there were any other lefties who successfully converted from overhand pitchers to sidearm ones, and found out Zach Duke (his Nationals teammate in 2012) was frequently mentioned as a good example. Javier Lopez, who recently retired after winning three World Series titles with the Giants, was another.
“Everybody you talk to or hear about, it’s pretty much the same thing, where they’re at a crossroad in their career,” Lannan said. “And as a lefty, I feel like there’s more areas you can explore, because lefties are pretty valuable in this game. ... You hear these stories, and it gives you some hope. It’s not easy, by any means, but there are guys that have done it.”
Experimenting with a new delivery was one thing. Finding an organization willing to sign him was another.
Lannan, though, had maintained a positive relationship with the Nationals, which may come as a surprise to those who remember how his original eight-year tenure with the organization ended.
For those who don’t remember, Lannan went 38-51 with a 4.00 ERA in 128 starts with the Nationals from 2007-11. He was the opening day starter of some admittedly substandard rotations in both 2009 and 2010. He was unspectacular, but he was a fairly reliable big league starter who took the ball every five days and anchored the rotation for a perennial last-place club.
Then came 2012, at which point the Nationals were finally ready to win. General manager Mike Rizzo made an unexpected move late in the winter, signing Edwin Jackson for $11 million. Even so, Lannan appeared a lock to be the team’s No. 5 starter when the season began ... only to learn after the club headed north from Viera that Ross Detwiler would instead get the job while he was being optioned to Triple-A Syracuse despite his $5 million guaranteed salary.
That’s when things turned nasty. Lannan and his agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, released a statement on the eve of the season opener in which they acknowledged they asked Rizzo to be traded: “I believe that I belong in a big league rotation. I am a proven major league starting pitcher, with a track record of success. I appreciate all the opportunities the Nationals organization has given me throughout the years. I’ve done a lot for this organization through some tough times. I anticipated on being part of the team’s next exciting chapter. If the Nationals feel they don’t need me or want me with the current makeup of the team, I can respect their decision. However, I’m very confident that I am capable of making a meaningful contribution to a major league team.”
The Nationals didn’t grant Lannan his wish, instead leaving him to pitch in Syracuse and keep himself on-call in case the big league club needed him. Which they did six times late in the season, including a critical doubleheader against the Braves during the height of the pennant race. Once the season ended, the Nats non-tendered Lannan, making him a free agent and ostensibly ending their relationship with him forever.
More than four years later, Lannan takes some blame for his reaction to the whole situation. He said he has spoken to Rizzo about it, and is pleased both sides let bygones be bygones to create this new opportunity.
“You can’t burn any bridges in this game,” he said. “Because you never know when this day is going to come, where you have to come back. You don’t want to be fake. You just want to be who you are. You want to be good to people. I think a lot of things that happened then was just passion for the game, maybe. Maybe a little ego, I don’t know. But you’ve got to live with the decisions you’ve made. And I don’t think anybody’s really hurt by it. I’ve talked to Mike about it. Even though we left on not great terms, everything’s cool.”
So the Nationals offered Lannan a chance, a minor league contract and the opportunity to work with the staff here in West Palm Beach this spring. Whether he makes it onto the roster of one of the club’s affiliates to begin the season remains to be seen. Whether he makes it back to Nationals Park at some point isn’t even on anyone’s mind at the moment.
All that matters to Lannan right now is that he’s here, wearing that red curly W cap again, running into old teammates and coaches, making one last attempt to revitalize a career that didn’t turn out the way he expected.
“Knowing that my career would’ve been over if I hadn’t done this, it kind of frees me up,” he said. “It’s exciting. Regardless of what happens, I can say I gave it everything I had to continue this. It’s fun. I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”