When manager Jim Riggleman said John Lannan had earned “a lot of leash” after the left-hander was knocked out of yesterday’s game, there was part of me that thought perhaps it shouldn’t have been seen as the ringing vote of confidence it was. Riggleman did say it in response to a question about whether Lannan would make his next scheduled start, but before that, he said this:
“That’s something we’ve got to think about, because John has been a mainstay here,” Riggleman said. “He’s been a horse here for this ballclub, who always went into the sixth, seventh, eighth inning. And when you continue to come out in the fourth or fifth, it’s just not going to work. But I believe in John. I think there’s got to be something there, because he has it in the bullpen. He’ll get the ball sinking. He just has not been able to take it into the game situation.”
And there’s another reason the comment should have been taken with some perspective: It came before Riggleman talked with general manager Mike Rizzo. Ultimately, the final decision belongs to him, and with some time to think about it, the Nationals collectively made a move that wholly reflects Rizzo’s m.o.
Riggleman, Rizzo and pitching coach Steve McCatty said the decision was made after talking on Monday, when Lannan’s outing against the White Sox on Sunday was still weighing heavily on Rizzo’s mind. Ultimately, they decided it would be better for Lannan to work out his mechanical issues at Double-A Harrisburg, away from the pressure of the major leagues and with a pitching coach (Randy Tomlin) that’s worked with the left-hander before.
“I think he was starting to press. I think it was his struggles were getting the best of him. Psychologically, I think that he was very worried about that he wasn’t letting his teammates down,” Rizzo said. “He wasn’t giving his teammates a chance to win games and stuff like that. Whenever you get that kind of mindset, I think it was a good time for him to take a step back, get himself together and go down there and get with a guy he’s comfortable with and iron some things out and get back up here.”
The move seemed in lockstep with Rizzo’s approach the whole way. Rizzo has made it clear before he’s unafraid to upset the team’s hierarchy when he needs to; that became evident early last year, when Lastings Milledge went from the starting center fielder job to the minors in a week. He proved it again this spring, when he bypassed all the other available options and cut Elijah Dukes, who was presumed to be the team’s Opening Day right fielder.
He repeated one of his mantras again on Monday, saying that the majors are a “performance league.” He’s also talked before about how the minors are for learning and the majors are for performing; he seems to believe that almost unequivocally. If Lannan had mechanical issues to work out - regaining command of his sinker, trusting his ability locate his pitches, whatever - there was a place for that, and it wasn’t in Washington’s rotation.
Rizzo, Riggleman and McCatty all talked about how professional Lannan was when he got the news - with one caveat.
“Basically he wants the reassurance that it’s not going to be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing,” Riggleman said. “That certainly won’t be the case. We’ll be looking for him to get back here quick.”
And it’s not likely to be a long stay in the minors for Lannan. The Nationals will need another starting pitcher next Thursday, and could get by with a replacement for three starts before the All-Star break. At that point, they’ll have time to reboot the rotation for the second half, quite possibly with Lannan in it.
Until then, though, Rizzo, Riggleman and McCatty decided it would be better for their Opening Day starter the last two years to get himself right in the minors. And given Rizzo’s way of doing things, it would’ve registered as a mild surprise had the Nationals not reached that conclusion.
“Yesterday’s performance wasn’t good. He wasn’t satisfied with it, and I wasn’t satisfied with it. We felt that he needed to go iron some things out down there,” Rizzo said. “More importantly, we need a guy up who gives us the best chance to win every fifth day. It wasn’t John at this point in time. That was the decision we made.”