We all knew the Nationals had a glaring, acknowledged weakness heading into the 2013 season; almost no quality starting pitching depth in the high minors. We non-tendered former opening day starter John Lannan in lieu of paying him somewhere between $5M-$6M dollars to toil in Syracuse again. We non-tendered former starter Tom Gorzelanny despite his excellent 2012 season for us instead of paying him a few millions dollars a year to continue to be the 7th guy out of the pen. We traded away top starting pitching prospect Alex Meyer to acquire a center-fielder that (in my oft-stated opinion) we didn’t need. We were blinded by the excellent but short-sample-sized performance of Zach Duke upon his call-up last September and chose to make him not only the sole lefty in our 2013 pen, but the long-man/spot starter as well.
And we talked ourselves into it.
In 2012 our primary rotation made 150 of 162 starts. Those 12 missed starts were made by Chien-Ming Wang (five starts) in a quickly-aborted glimpse to see if the many millions of dollars invested in his recovery over the past few years were going to pay off (they did not), by Lannan (six) for a couple of mid-season spot starts and his Stephen Strasburg replacement plan in September, and one by Gorzelanny the day after the team clinched the division (editor note: mistakely originally put “pennant.” Duh). That’s it; otherwise the rotation was solid, consistent, and one of the best in the majors by any statistical measure.
Was it just hubris that led us to believe that the same thing would happen in 2013? That our vaunted rotation (which I certainly thought was the best in the majors before the season started) would steamroll through another 150+ starts in 2013 as we marched to the inevitable World Series title? Maybe so.
The latest blow is the news that Ross Detwiler‘s herniated disk may very well keep him out for the rest of 2013. Taylor Jordan has been more than ably filling in for Detwiler … but in a familiar twist Jordan is facing an innings restriction limit. After August 4th’s start he’s got 40 2/3 major league innings in 2013 to go with 90 1/3 in the minors for 131 total on the year. He only threw 54 1/3 all of 2012 coming back from Tommy John surgery, and this year easily marks a professional career high (he’s never thrown more than 100 professional innings). He’s going to get shut down, soon (in about four more starts per the Washington Times’ Amanda Comak, which would put him just about at the same 160ip limit that both Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann pitched to the year after their own TJ surgeries). This leaves the team right back where they were on May 20th, when the whole “find a competent 5th starter” charade started.
Duke failed and was released. Yunesky Maya got his last attempt at pitching in the majors and was outrighted (a move long overdue in the opinion of many Nats followers). Nathan Karns got three bites at the apple and returned to AA with a 7.50 ERA. Ross Ohlendorf gave us a fantastic spot start in a double header last week… and just went on the D/L after not being able to dial it up more than 85mph in his last appearance. The only other 40-man starter in the whole of the minors is Matthew Purke, currently posting a 6.35 ERA in high-A.
Hey, at least Dan Haren suddenly resembles the 2009 version of himself, having tossed 14 innings oof one-run ball en route to winning his last two starts. A month ago we were talking about releasing him.
So, what should the team do when Jordan is shutdown? It sounds to me like in the short term we’ll go back to Ohlendorf as the 5th starter (assuming of course his recent “dead arm” injury doesn’t turn into much more than a quick D/L trip). However, despite Ohlendorf’s excellent work for us thus far, lets not forget why he was available on a minor league deal in the first place; his ERAs in 2011 and 2012 were 8.15 and 7.77 respectively. Odds are that he’s not likely to be that effective going forward.
Plus, Ohlendorf’s time in the rotation means the bullpen will need another guy … presumably one that can pitch long relief to replace Ohlendorf. I’m not entirely sure any of the other relievers on the 40-man but in the minors (Drew Storen, Erik Davis or Tyler Robertson) fits the bill. Craig Stammen has absolutely done that role in the past, but I think Stammen’s value to this team now lies in his 7th inning “bridge reliever” role, getting the team from a short start to the 8th/9th inning guys.
If Detwiler is indeed out for the year I think he should be immediately transferred to the 60-day D/L (opening up a spot on the 40-man roster) and I’d like to see Tanner Roark get a look-see as the long man in the bullpen. He’s put up very good numbers in AAA this season in a swing-man role and faces minor league free agency this off-season. Or, I wouldn’t be opposed to keeping Ohlendorf in the pen and giving Danny Rosenbaum a shot at the 5th starter. He’s been the most effective AAA starter all year and, despite not being that overpowering, could turn into another Tommy Milone-esque lefty starter that we could leverage in trade. We may not have fantastic depth in the upper minors, but you never know who may suddenly be an effective MLB pitcher (see Krol, Ian).
(Editor’s note: after I wrote this mid-weekend MASN’s Byron Kerr wrote and posted almost identical analysis).