Nats’ rotation full opportunity to dispel doubters

Another day, another bullpen option for the Nationals, who signed veteran swingman Chad Gaudin to a minor league contract with a spring training invite Friday morning. MASNsports.com’s Ben Goessling detailed the decidedly hard-throwing complexion of the relief corps in a previous post, and when you look at the heath, consistency and durability concerns prevalent throughout the rotation, the reasons general manager Mike Rizzo is collecting strikeout specialists to back them up come clearer into focus.

Ballyhooed prospect Stephen Strasburg’s Tommy John surgery robbed the Nationals of the only true strikeout pitcher who would have been in the starting five. If he’s lucky, Strasburg might get a taste of the majors by August or September, but only if he continues to progress quickly in his rehabilitation from the ligament-replacement procedure. But it’s also possible - even likely - that Strasburg doesn’t pitch with a curly W on his cap at all next season.

Without him, the Nationals are a collection of control specialists, soft tossers and question marks - not exactly a ringing endorsement of Rizzo’s roster construction.

Take the veteran leaders, right-handers Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis. Hernandez pitched well enough last season to earn an extension through 2011, but when will his deal with the devil expire? Few people really believe that Hernandez is only 35, but he’s not about to let anyone cut him in half and count the rings. Replicating last season’s 10-12 record, 3.66 and 211 2.3 innings would seem a stretch, particularly considering the loss of Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham from the Washington lineup. The 32-year-old Marquis is a gamer, and he pitched well after elbow surgery in 2010, the first season in seven he didn’t record double-digit victories. On most clubs, he’d fit at the middle or back of the rotation; with the Nationals, he’s front and center.

Lefty John Lannan is only 25, but he needed a stint at Double-A Harrisburg to salvage something out of a 2010 campaign when he went 8-8 with a 4.65 ERA - not the kind of production teams expect from their opening day starter. He’ll be arbitration-eligible in 2011, and so far Lannan has only teased the Nats with potential. After heading to Harrisburg following an 0-3 start to June, Lannan rebounded to go 6-3 with a 3.29 ERA the rest of the way after being recalled in August. Maybe he’s that pitcher in 2011. The Nats hope so.

Jordan Zimmermann progressed so quickly from August 2009 Tommy John surgery that he was back in the rotation at the end of 2010, making seven starts and going 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA. Sometimes, Zimmermann seemed in command; other times, it was excruciatingly evident that he was working his way back. Unfortunately, which Zimmermann manifests himself starting in spring training in mid-February at Viera, Fla., remains to be seen. The righty has, perhaps, the most upside of any pitcher not named Strasburg on the roster; unfortunately, he also carries just much uncertainty.

The fifth starter? It wouldn’t be late winter in Viera without a cattle call at Space Coast Stadium. Gaudin, J.D. Martin, Luis Atilano, Yunesky Maya, Matt Chico, Shairon Martis, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang are the primary combatants in this year’s battle royal. The Nationals are hoping their patience with Wang, a two-time 19-game winner with the Yankees, is rewarded. Only time will tell if the 30-year-old has put shoulder, hip and foot problems behind him. A comeback would strengthen the rotation, for sure, and mean the Nats wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on Lannan and Zimmermann.

There’s always the chance that Rizzo pulls off the deal he wants for another veteran arm, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Nationals head into spring training with the options outlined above - along with an opportunity to prove numerous doubters wrong.