Grading the 2010 Nationals: The starting rotation

We’re continuing our “Grading the 2010 Nationals” series today with a look at the team’s starting rotation. As a whole, this group got better this season, lowering its ERA by more than one-third of a run over last year (4.97 in 2009, 4.61 in 2010). But that mark was still third-worst in the National League, and the group endured a host of inconsistent performances and injuries - none more devastating than the torn ulnar collateral ligament that ended Stephen Strasburg’s season on Aug. 21 and necessitated Tommy John surgery that will keep the young fireballer out for most of 2011.

Here are the grades for the rotation:

Luis Atilano
Grade: C- The rookie had his moments, allowing three runs in his first two starts combined and winning five of his first six decisions. But he fell apart when he lost the feel for his sinker, getting tagged with a 5.62 ERA in his final eight starts as his ability to get ground balls with his sinker diminished. We’ll give him some benefit of the doubt after he needed arthroscopic surgery to clean out bone chips from his elbow - the injury probably cut into his sinker’s effectiveness - but Atilano’s ceiling wasn’t all that high when he was healthy. He figures to be on the outside looking in next spring.

Ross Detwiler
Grade: Incomplete It’s difficult to grade Detwiler’s year, because he spent more than half of it on the disabled list after right hip flexor surgery in February (and an aggravation of the injury in August). He also didn’t get much help from his defense in his first major league stint, allowing eight unearned runs. But the 2007 first-round pick also didn’t show much in most of his starts, save for his Sept. 23 win against Houston. Detwiler said at the end of the year he was still trying to build power back in his legs while working with pitching coach Steve McCatty to lengthen his stride. His fastball sure wasn’t up to snuff this year; it averaged just 89.7 mph, down from 91 mph last year.

Livan Hernandez
Grade: A- What a comeback season for the right-hander, who had pitched for four teams in the previous two seasons and waited until after the start of spring training to sign a minor league deal with the Nationals. Once he made the rotation, it didn’t take long for the 35-year-old to become its rock. Hernandez began the season with 17 shutout innings, posted an 0.87 ERA in April, pitched more than 200 innings and earned himself an extension for next season. His first month dressed up his overall numbers for the season - his ERA after April was 4.13 - but for what the Nationals expected to get from Hernandez, it’s tough to call this year anything other than an unqualified success. Assuming he keeps himself in shape this winter, Hernandez will be a virtual lock to make next year’s rotation.

John Lannan
Grade: C+ Lannan’s two halves almost need to be graded separately, and those would probably work out to an F and an A- or B+. But we’ll bump Lannan up for the way he finished the season, making a few subtle adjustments to his delivery and regaining control of his sinker. Lannan is a ground ball artist first, but he started racking up a few strikeouts toward the end of the season (25 in his final 32 1/3 innings of the year). He needed a rebound at the end of the year, too, with his first round of arbitration coming up this winter. Lannan getting back to form was a big development for the Nationals, and he’ll be part of their rotation in the spring.

Jason Marquis
Grade: D The only thing that prevented this from being an F was the way Marquis finished the year, posting a 3.61 ERA in his final eight starts. But even in those games, there was one of the eyesores that Marquis turned in for his first three starts before going on the disabled list and eventually having surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow. Marquis had a 20.52 ERA when he went on the disabled list in April, and wasn’t much better in his first two starts back from the disabled list, when he still couldn’t last longer than four innings. Twice this season, Marquis was pulled in the first inning, including his April 18 start against the Brewers, where he gave up seven runs without recording an out. Considering the Nationals signed him for $15 million to solidify the rotation over the next two years, Marquis’ performance was one of the most disappointing of the season for the Nationals.

J.D. Martin
Martin’s season ended with back problems in late July, but before that, he gave the Nationals what he also provided in 2009: serviceable, boring work. There’s nothing special about Martin; like many of the Nationals’ starters, he uses a sinker to try and generate weak contact. But he had a respectable 4.12 ERA in nine starts this year, and did his best work of the season on June 19, holding the White Sox to one run in six innings in a nationally televised game that Fox picked up thinking it would be getting Stephen Strasburg. Martin, like a number of the Nationals’ other pitch-to-contact starters, will have to force his way into the rotation next year, but he figures to be around.

Yunesky Maya
Grade: C- This is what the Nationals paid $8 million to get over the next four years? A breaking-ball artist whose flat fastball isn’t effective enough to set up his off-speed pitches? It’s entirely possible that Maya will get better as he adjusts to MLB hitters, and the Nationals have plenty of time to work with the 29-year-old Cuban defector, whose big-breaking curveball and slider look like legitimate pitches. But without a better fastball, Maya will continue to have to nibble, and is going to have the problem he did this year, where one inning would consistent get him in trouble.

Scott Olsen
Grade: C- You could argue Olsen’s grade should have been higher, given the fact he was throwing in the mid-80s early this spring and started the year in the minors while he was trying to regain strength in his injured shoulder. But after a solid first two months of the season (a 3.77 ERA, including a game where he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning), Olsen missed two months with shoulder inflammation and never put things back together when he came back. He pouted when the team moved him to the bullpen in September, and again was unable to pitch at the end of the year after having “aches and pains” in his shoulder. It’s unlikely Olsen will be back with the Nationals.

Craig Stammen
Grade: C- We’ve probably seen about what the Nationals are going to get from Stammen; he’ll look commanding on some nights, and get rocked on others. The disappointing thing for the Nationals this year, though, was that Stammen began the season with a strong spring, throwing the ball harder (a 90.5 mph fastball, versus 89.0 mph in 2009) and boasting a tighter curveball after arthroscopic elbow surgery at the end of 2009. He started overthrowing at the beginning of the year, though, and had a bizarre problem being effective on the road all year (a 6.23 ERA there, as opposed to a 4.14 ERA at home). Stammen moved to the bullpen at the end of the year, and could stay there as a long reliever in the future. It seems questionable whether he’ll pan out in the rotation.

Stephen Strasburg
Grade: A- For two months, Strasburg was simply electric. He struck out 14 batters in his big league debut - a game that is still stirring to watch - and fanned 12.18 batters per nine innings. Had he thrown enough innings to qualify, Strasburg would have led the league. He showed an ahead-of-his-time command of pitching intricacies, and looked to be headed for one of his most dominant outings on Aug. 21 in Philadelphia. But ultimately, the only thing Strasburg couldn’t do was stay healthy; he went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation in July, and grabbed his elbow after a changeup to Domonic Brown in August. He’ll miss most of 2011 with Tommy John surgery, and his absence will dramatically alter the Nationals’ rotation next season.

Jordan Zimmermann
Grade: C+ Zimmermann deserves credit for coming back in just over 12 months from Tommy John surgery, and finished the year on a good note (allowing just two runs in his final 11 innings). But he gave up eight home runs, seven of them coming in his last four starts. His fastball was already back in the mid-90s, but Zimmermann has a tendency to elevate it at times, which will continue to lead to homers until he can command it better. He’ll be a key piece of the Nationals’ rotation next year, and his 2010 performance has to be put in some context. But he’s also a long way from being dominant in the majors.

Agree, or disagree, with the grades? Let me know what you think.