We're inside of two weeks until pitchers and catchers report now, and with an enjoyable-if-not-classic Super Bowl behind us, the baseball season officially enjoys an unobstructed view on the sports horizon. Well, maybe that's a little less true in an Olympic year. But you get my point: It's getting close.
In that spirit, I wanted to kick around an issue that many of you asked about in last week's live chat. The competition for spots on the Nationals' starting staff is going to be as fierce as I can remember it, so I'd like to begin the week by breaking down the competitors for rotation spots and what they'll need to do to get in.
Let's start by assuming there are two guarantees out of the five spots in the rotation: John Lannan and Jason Marquis. Put them in whatever order you want, but the two New Yorkers are going to be there. That leaves three spots, to be contested among a group including (but not necessarily limited to): Collin Balester, Miguel Batista, Ross Detwiler, J.D. Martin, Shairon Martis, Garrett Mock, Scott Olsen, Craig Stammen, and Stephen Strasburg. I guess you could throw Shawn Estes into that group, too, but we'll assume he's covered by the "not necessarily limited to" provision.
So how do you assemble a rotation out of a group of prospects, bargain veterans and injury risks? It's going to be one of the biggest focuses of spring training, to the point where early starts are going to matter more than they have in the past, just to see how Olsen's shoulder looks or whether Mock has made the necessary strides to start every five days. This group will have to get whittled down by the middle of March, so the Nationals can start giving their presumptive starters more work in the last few starts of spring.
Here's my take on each guy, what he has to do to end up in the rotation and where he'll likely land:
He's in the rotation if: He shows the kind of consistency and effort early in camp that we never saw from him last year. Balester had an inside track to one of the open spots, but got passed by Martis and Jordan Zimmermann while he tinkered with the height of his delivery toward the plate. There isn't going to be time for much of that tinkering this year, if Balester wants to make an impression. He gave up 10 homers in 30 1/3 innings with the Nationals last year. His curveball will have to be sharper than it was, and he'll have to show a little more mental toughness than we've seen.
Where he ends up: Balester has the stuff to excel in the majors, but barring an eye-opening spring, he'll likely start in Syracuse.
He's in the rotation if: The Nats decide they need the kind of veteran innings-eater they had two years ago with Odalis Perez. Batista can be that guy, but he hasn't excelled at it since 2007 with the Mariners. His career WHIP (1.497) is on the high side, and it hasn't been below 1.5 since 2004. But there's been a spot for guys like Batista in the rotation before, and Jim Riggleman saw him in Seattle in 2008. He's a guy worth watching.
Where he ends up: If the Nationals get spooked by the state of their young pitchers, Batista slides into the fifth spot to open the year. But it's more likely he's the first guy to be called up from Syracuse--or he makes the team as a swing reliever, like Julian Tavarez did last year.
He's in the rotation if: He continues to pitch the way he did last September. Detwiler has struggled with his mechanics and been through a couple of overhauls since the Nationals took him with the sixth pick in 2007. But he seemed to find a groove last fall, throwing an effective two-seam fastball that got him 13 ground-ball outs in his first big-league win against the Mets. Detwiler's got solid velocity on his fastball, but not the kind that will help him miss bats consistently. He's another pitch-to-contact guy, which the Nationals like, and he'll only need to replicate what he was doing last fall to start this year in the majors.
Where he ends up: As the No. 5 starter in Washington's rotation. Detwiler seems ready to make the jump, and the guess here is he gets that chance.
He's in the rotation if: Most of the Nationals' flashier prospects fail to make strong showings this spring. Martin was effective in his half-season in the rotation last year, but he's not a guy who factors prominently into the team's long-term plan. Maybe he moves in a trade, or maybe he sneaks into the rotation with a consistent spring. But teams had a .279 average and .341 OBP against him last year, and he doesn't seem like a guy that's going to rocket up the ladder at this stage in his career.
Where he ends up: Syracuse, barring a trade or a surprising spring. Martin is a good option to have on hand, but there are enough pitchers with stronger chances than him that he'll wind up in the minors.
He's in the rotation if: He comes out throwing like he did last spring, or the early part of the season. Martis' big problem has always been his tendency to nibble, and he started doing that too much last June after a 5-0 start with the Nationals. He's not 23 yet, though, and while we didn't see him last September, GM MIke Rizzo said he'd gotten reports from Syracuse that Martis had been more aggressive in going after hitters. There's a mental bridge that has to be crossed before doing that in the majors, though, and the hunch here is Martis needs another half-season in the minors before he's there.
Where he ends up: As one of the team's top starters in Syracuse before returning to Washington later in the year. Martis has the stuff to be an effective starter, but there's no rush on him, and the Nats will take their time.
He's in the rotation if: We're a little bit at a loss on this one. Mock has impressive stuff, a sharp four-pitch arsenal that he used to dominate at Syracuse last year. But he's yet to show that in the majors, walking far too many batters instead of challenging them and failing to adjust to hitters the second and third time through the order. Mock's BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .360 last year, which somewhat corroborates his frequent contentions a few bleeders and seeing-eye singles did him in. But those get more damaging when you walk people, and a .380 OBP against doesn't help matters.
Where he ends up: The Nationals are running out of time to figure out what Mock will be, and manager Jim Riggleman has hinted several times this winter he's got a good chance to be in the rotation. The hunch here is he misses out on a spot and starts in Syracuse. But the Nationals still have high hopes for him, either as a starter or reliever, and he's a Rizzo guy. So we might end up eating our words on this one.
He's in the rotation if: His arm is healthy enough to get his velocity into the low-90s by early March, setting up his other pitches to be effective. Olsen's shoulder is a concern, especially after he rarely showed much zip on his fastball last year, and his other pitches were only effective last year in the summer stint between injuries where his fastball finally broke 90 mph. The Nationals have cut a veteran starter each of the last two years in camp when they had concerns about arm trouble (John Patterson and Shawn Hill). Could Olsen be the third? His $1 million salary is a lot easier to eat than the $2.24 million he would have made, at a minimum, had the Nationals offered him arbitration.
Where he ends up: All that said, Olsen is only 26, and has three full seasons as a starter under his belt. That's more than most of the Nationals' other options, and we're guessing Olsen makes the rotation as the No. 3 starter.
He's in the rotation if: He continues his progression toward becoming a right-handed John Lannan. The Nationals like ground-ball pitchers who work quick, and Stammen can do that when his two-seamer is sharp (remember the six shutout innings against the Yankees last year?). His stuff isn't anything dynamic, but he's a hard worker who pitched hurt last year and who's willing to learn--another quality he shares with Lannan. The Nationals' two-seamer specialists (Lannan and Marquis) at the top of the rotation will help Stammen, and while the bullpen has been mentioned as an option for him, he might not need it..
Where he ends up: Stammen pitched 105 2/3 innings before elbow surgery last year, and assuming the bone chips are no longer a problem, he'll be the No. 4 starter in the Nationals' rotation to open the year.
He's in the rotation if: He's so dynamic this spring that the Nationals have no choice but to put him in the majors. That's a possibility--Strasburg has the stuff, and at least some of the knowledge to figure out the big-league pitching puzzle at age 21. He needs to develop a changeup, though, and while the Nationals say his knee is healed after he hurt it in the Arizona Fall League last year, they're not going to take any chances with him. Strasburg's 100-mph fastball is electric, but it can flatten out at times, and he'll likely get hit around by an experienced lineup at least once this spring (like the Cardinals did to Jordan Zimmermann last year). But there's no question Strasburg's ceiling is higher than anyone else in the Nationals' camp. And he's got the capacity to force his way onto this team.
Where he ends up: Ah, yes, the $15.1 million elephant in the room. You'll hear plenty about Strasburg this spring, from this outlet and plenty of others around the country. But in the end, he probably gets sent to the minors, at least for a brief tour of Class A Potomac (get your tickets now!) and Class AA Harrisburg or Class AAA Syracuse before making his debut at Nationals Park sometime this year. Rizzo prefers a slow path with prospects like this, especially with the kind of suffocating hype Strasburg will face this spring, and he could use at least a little time to tune his changeup.
So, to recap, my projection for the Nationals' Opening Day rotation is this:
Balester, Batista, Martis, Martin and Mock head to Syracuse (with the possibility Batista or Mock makes the team as a reliever) and Strasburg takes a quick tour through the minors before arriving in the District this summer.
All this, though, is subject to plenty of change -- there are some permutations that would include Estes or even Matt Chico -- but it's plenty of fun to speculate about.
So let's do a little of that: Leave your guesses for the rotation in the comments section, along with what you'll be watching from this group of pitchers this spring. Then, we can revisit those predictions throughout the spring. Maybe there will even be some publicly-acknowledged bragging rights for the winner, or a prize of similar financial value and prestige.
The polls are now open. Get to it.