Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Whose Rotation Job is really at stake?

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If Maya really turns it on this spring ... will he be in the rotation? Photo via thenatsblog.com

Most Nats pundits (including this one, as posted here) seem to think the Nats opening day rotation is a foregone conclusion.  Livan Hernandez is getting the ball opening day, then will be followed in some order (probably close to the following order to break up Lefty-Righties) Jordan Zimmerman, John Lannan, Jason Marquis, and then newly acquired former Cub Tom Gorzelanny.  MLB beat writer Bill Ladson believes Yunesky Maya will win the spot and Gorzelanny will pitch out of the bullpen, but for the most part this is the agreed-upon opening day rotation.

This leaves 2-3 leading starter candidates (possibly $8M signee Yunesky Maya, former #1 draft pick Ross Detwiler and former 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang) to fend for AAA or rehab starts.  Some even put non-roster spring training invitee Chad Gaudin into the mix (personally I do not; the last time he was a full time starter was in 2009 pitching in the cavernous San Diego park and he put up a horrible 5.13 era).

The question is; is JUST the #5 spot open for competition?  Here’s some quick thoughts and stats on the “leading 5″ guys.

1. Livan Hernandez had a renaissance season, and a historic one among the opinions of the FIP/saber metric guys.  At various times during the season there was nearly a point and half gap between Livan’s actual ERA and his expected fielder-independent-pitching values.  This gap is normally attributed to “luck” by stat heads, who insist that pitchers eventually return to the mean.  By the time the season was over Livan had regressed backwards somewhat but still finished with an inexplicable gap between his actual and expected values.  ERA of 3.66, FIP of 3.95 and xFIP of 4.76 with a BABIP of .293.

Can he do it again in 2011?  He’s a year older and theoretically a year closer to obsolescence, but he isn’t the type of pitcher who ages badly.  He only throws mid 80s to begin with, and a combination of easy arm motion and zero injury history leds credence to his statement that he wants to be the “Jamie Moyer” of right-handers.   There’s no reason to think he won’t repeat his 2010 performance … until you look at his 2007-9 pitching stats.  There may be worry here after all.  He’s a survivor though and I can’t see him getting demoted out of this rotation.

2. Jordan Zimmermann has a lot of expectations on his arm this year.  We know what we get with him; mid 90s fastball, good movement on his off speed stuff, about 8.5 k/9.  What we don’t know is whether or not he’s closer to Matt Cain or if he’s closer to Garrett Mock.  Its hard to analyze his two MLB seasons because of the arm injury; in 2009 he was clearly hurt during his last few starts and he was clearly rusty at the end of 2010.  His 2nd game back he struck out 9 and only gave up one hit through 6 complete … and then got hammered in three straight games. He finished the season strong though; putting in a couple of really nice performances in late sept/early october (his last two game scores were both 60+)

Which Zimmermann will we see in 2011?  We are all optimistic that he’s healthy, that his time has come, and that he’ll be the strong #2 that we expect.  But temper your expectations; he’s yet to pitch a 100 innings in a season (and only maxed out at 134 in his only full professional season to date, 2008).  Until I see an injury-free, dominant season he’s just another prospect.

3. Jason Marquis.  His contract ($7.5M for 2011) earns him a spot right now, not his performance.  He was pretty good for Colorado in 2009, and decent in Chicago the two years before that.  Suddenly he gets to Washington and he forgets how to pitch.  Was it all the bone chips in his elbow or were there other things going on?

After his return post surgery in August, he had 10 starts.  Isolating just for those 10 starts (a neat little feature at baseball-reference.com, frankly) we discover that he was 2-6 with a 4.29 era and a mediocre 1.50 whip.  Most of that damage was done in an ugly game in Philly where he only retired one batter.

So, the question is, Is Marquis back to his 2007-2009 form?  If he isn’t, and he starts putting up lines like he did on April 18th of last year (7 batters up, 7 batters scored for an infinite ERA on the day) how short is his leash?

4. John Lannan.  Staff Aces usually don’t get sent to AA to work on their mechanics mid-season, but something was clearly amiss with Lannan’s game.  His last four starts prior to being sent down were awful; in one game he gave up 4 walks and 10 hits in fewer than 5 innings.  Luckily, Lannan’s time in the minors seemed to help; he only had two “bad” starts after returning in August and in his last 10 starts posted a 6-3 record with a 3.42 era and 1.24 whip.  These numbers easily eclipse his career numbers and eclipse his rather consistent numbers for the whole of 2008 and 2009′s seasons.

The question is (as it is with most of our starters): what version of Lannan are we getting?  Is it June 2010 Lannan or is it July 2009 Lannan (a day he shut out the Mets on 7 hits).  Lannan has one option remaining, so we could send him back down again if the train runs off the tracks.  More likely is that Lannan has figured out what was wrong and will be our most consistent starter for the 3rd year out of 4 running.

5. Tom Gorzelanny.  Cut loose by the Cubs for a relative bargain (one higher end but stalled prospect, one decent mature arm and one rough higher-ceiling youngster).  Why?  Partly because he was probably 6th or 7th in line for rotation spots on the North Side (Dempster, Zambrano, Garza, Wells and Silva followed by a promising rookie Coleman).  He’s not bad; 2010′s 7-9 season featured a 4.09 era but a bloated 1.496 whip for a slightly better than league average 106 era+.  He would have been our 2nd or 3rd best starter last year.

But which Gorzelanny are we getting?  2010′s version of passable production or 2008′s god-awful 6.66 era season with Pittsburgh?  There isn’t much wiggle room for him; he’s out of options and he’d block another deserving bullpen candidate if he falters.


Best Case for the team: Hernandez continues to pitch like its 1997, Zimmermann pitches league average or better and doesn’t get hurt, Lannan continues where he left off last fall, and Marquis/Gorzelanny product up to their capabilities.

Possible real-world case: We get career-norm results out of Livan, Lannan and Marquis (our leading vets), but Zimmerman suffers an elbow strain and Gorzelanny gets bumped to the bullpen in the spring training, giving both Maya and Detwiler immediate rotation spots.

Worst Case: Marquis gets released, Gorzelanny gets shelled, and Zimmermann gets hurt.  We’re calling up Maya, Detwiler and rushing Wang back from rehab.  And our safety net includes 3 guys we DFA’d over the winter and the likes of Stammen, Balester and Mock.

Lets hope we get some best case spring training results.

Written by Todd Boss

February 22nd, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Posted in Majors Pitching

7 Responses to 'Whose Rotation Job is really at stake?'

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  1. Sorry, Todd. Looks like you got hit with some blog-spam.

    Mark L

    23 Feb 11 at 7:36 am

  2. When he’s going well, I find there to be no more enjoyable pitcher than Livan to watch. Just flat out fun. When he throws that ‘Bugs Bunny pitch’, there are some laugh out loud moments when the hitter almost tries to do that cartoon swing where he almost swings twice in one pitch.
    I’ve seen 3 hitters over the years actuallly injure themselves trying to deal with it.

    Mark L

    23 Feb 11 at 7:50 am

  3. I’d be satisfied with a Livo that pitched to his FIP from last year (3.95) and piled up innings. I don’t expect Lannan to be the (really lousy) “early 2010″ Lannan or the (good) “late 2010″ Lannan. I would expect him to be the Lannan of 2008 and 2009. I don’t think that Marquis will pitch the whole season with the club. If he reverts to “early 2010″ form, I think he’ll be cut if he can’t be demoted (not sure what his option status is, but I think that with his years of service he can refuse a demotion). If he’s effective he’ll end up being traded.

    Your points about Jordan Zimmermann are well taken; everyone seems to assume he’s going to be Strasburg Lite. While I’m hoping for that, I really would expect him to be inconsistent. If he can give them 135-150 innings over 20-25 starts, that would be fine.

    Every team has a worst case scenario. Is it possible? Yes. But by definition not likely. And even in the worst case scenario the Nationals have options coming along other than the same AAAA retreads (Atilano, Martin, Martis, Chico) – they also have some young guns coming up (Sammy Solis, Brad Peacock) that may well leapfrog over the Syracuse group. That’s where the progress in the organization can be seen – there’s actually something in the pipeline (with A.J. Cole and Robbie Ray lined up behind Solis and Peacock).

    John C.

    23 Feb 11 at 11:16 am

  4. The team has already said JZimmermann is on a pitch or innings limit, probably somewhere in that exact 135-150 range.

    For 2011, if we get into a worse-case scenario (Marquis released; as you surmised his 5+ years of pro service allow him the option of refusing any assignment to the minors), we’re looking at a long season. I think we all know what Atilano, Martin, Martis, Chico, Balester and Stammen can do in a starter role. Its a 5+ era, its early runs and the team constantly being 3-0, 4-0 down in the 3rd inning.

    If we get to that point, i’d like to see the likes of Milone, Meyers, Tatusko or Roark thrown in there rather than any of the above (with the exception of Stammen, who I think pitches better than his era/whip).

    Solis, Peacock definitely on the way but won’t help us in 2011.

    Todd Boss

    23 Feb 11 at 12:05 pm

  5. No worries on the spam. I’m paying for an anti-spam service that does a fantastic job of clearing them out. When i first went online mid-last year I was absolutely deluged with spam. That’s why you have to register to comment. Eventually it became impossible to actually see real comments. This problem is what prevented me from really blogging on a regular basis until this off season frankly.

    I found the pay-for service and it works great.

    As I was signing up for it (Akismet) I was thinking, “what a random world we live in. Somebody is now making a pretty good living by selling a product that removes spam from WordPress blog sites.”

    Todd Boss

    23 Feb 11 at 12:33 pm

  6. What’s the word on this new flamethrower from Oakland? Sounds like a Nuke Laloush. Anyone who reaches 103 on the mound is worth taking a chance on

    papa boss

    24 Feb 11 at 11:46 am

  7. Big arm, throws hard, no options left so he’s almost guaranteed a bullpen spot. The team probably has closer-by-committee this year between Storen and Rodriguez.

    Rizzo has definitely improved this bullpen, adding live arm’d guys who throw hard and follow the pattern of baseball leaning towards heavy throwers.

    Todd Boss

    24 Feb 11 at 4:40 pm

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