VIERA, Fla. - First, let's get this out of the way: The pitching staff the Nationals have at the start of spring training is not their ideal group. Not even close.
In a perfect world, Stephen Strasburg would be healthy. They'd also have another top-of-the-line starter to pair with him, like Zack Greinke, whom they tried to get this winter. Even with Strasburg recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Nationals would have been in better shape if they'd been able to add a stopper on the top of their staff. As it is, they'll likely start Livan Hernandez on opening day and hope a staff of back-of-the-rotation starters can nudge them toward respectability.
Even at that, though, the Nationals come into spring training with more pitching than they've had at possibly any point since they came to Washington. That says more about the sorry state of what the team's had in the past. But this year's staff won't include Daniel Cabrera as a No. 3 starter, or Odalis Perez pitching on opening day. It will likely have Hernandez, John Lannan and Jason Marquis, who can all be serviceable (if not spectacular) starters when they're on. It could also include newcomer Tom Gorzelanny and Jordan Zimmermann, who the Nationals see as their No. 2 or No. 3 starter of the future.
"I think some good things can come out of the rotation," Riggleman said. "We've had some setbacks, with Stephen's injury last year and stuff. That being said, I think that Jordan Zimmermann being back, Lannan, Marquis, all these guys - Livan - we feel like we've got a lot of good names to draw from there. Our rotation has got a little more depth. Overall, I feel better about our pitching."
Zimmermann is a big key to the Nationals improving. He's one of the only pitchers they have who can miss bats and take some pressure off their young middle infield, especially if Gorzelanny isn't in the rotation. The Nationals will be cautious with him in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery - Riggleman said he will have an innings limit, though he wanted to talk to pitching coach Steve McCatty and pitching coordinator Spin Williams before settling on an exact number. But assuming Zimmermann pitches between 150 and 160 innings, he'll have a chance to make an impression.
"We're not looking for Jordan to go out there and give us 200 innings this year. That's more of the future," Riggleman said. "But we do want him to go out there and be a stabilizer. He's a guy who I think right now around baseball, regardless of what rotation he was in, would probably be looked at as a third starter. But we feel like he's going to be better than that. It doesn't all have to happen this year, but we do want to make progress toward that."