Riggleman ponders Nats’ rotation past Hernandez

VIERA, Fla. - Livan Hernandez will start the Nationals’ March 31 season opener against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. After the veteran right-hander, manager Jim Riggleman still hasn’t decided how his five-man rotation will shake out.

“We’re still tossing around a couple of ways we could go. If (John) Lannan and (Tom) Gorzelanny are in there, we’re still tossing it around a little bit as to breaking them up,” Riggleman said. “They’re not pitching against the same team, back-to-back, two lefties. I don’t know that there’s much evidence that that matters a lot, but it seems to be that if you can break them up, break them up. The order that we go in for (Jason) Marquis, (Jordan) Zimmermann, Lannan, Gorzelanny - there’s still some room to play around with that.”

One thing Riggleman is weighing is whether to break spring camp with all five starting pitchers on the 25-man roster. If he opts to take an extra reliever or bench player north, a fifth starter could begin the season in the minors (or be optioned to the minors yet remain with the major league club).

But Riggleman isn’t sure whether the Nats need an extra arm because they have two off days in the season’s first five days - Friday, April 1 and Monday, April 4. If Washington carries an extra player, it will be because they don’t want to risk losing someone to a waiver claim if they are assigned to the minors, the manager said.

Of the starting pitchers, only Marquis, Zimmermann and Lannan can be optioned to the minor leagues. Marqius has one minor league option remaining; Zimmermann and Lannan have two each. Those players can be sent to the minor leagues - the official Major League Baseball terminology is “on optional assignment” - but can be moved back and forth from the major league and minor league rosters without penalty during each option year.

“We might not do it for that reason, but we can do it,” Riggleman said.

While Riggleman continues to chart the rotation past Hernandez, he remains unsure of when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman will be able to play again. Zimmerman, who has been out with a left groin injury, last appeared in a game March 14.

“I’m looking at Friday. He’s thinking maybe Thursday if there’s no setback of any type,” Riggleman said. “If he plays Friday, there’s five games left (and) I’ll try to give him four of those five.”

Zimmerman took ground balls before Tuesday’s game and has been gradually increasing his baseball activities over the past several days while reporting no ill effects from the groin problem. Zimmerman previously said that if this were the regular season, he would have played but that he was comfortable with the team’s conservative approach to his recovery.