Nationals Arm Race

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

One lesson learned from 2013: you can never have enough starting pitching

17 comments

If Detwiler is out for the year, the Nats have a problem. Photo: Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

If Detwiler is out for the year, the Nats have a problem. Photo: Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

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 StorenErik 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).

17 Responses to 'One lesson learned from 2013: you can never have enough starting pitching'

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  1. What, no love at all for Caleb Clay? Dude has much better numbers than Rosenbaum this year and is the exact same age. That’s not to say that he doesn’t remind me of the 2nd coming of J.D. Martin.

    bdrube

    5 Aug 13 at 9:34 am

  2. Clay in AAA: 55 innings, just 28 punchouts. I dunno. His last start he went 7 innings and had just one strikeout. I know that’s being overly obsessive about the K, but that’s the currency of minor league pitching it seems. I have no idea what kind of stuff he’s got but am assuming he’s not exactly a fireballer. Which means (ala Rosenbaum) this organization doesn’t rate him.

    Todd Boss

    5 Aug 13 at 9:50 am

  3. Isn’t Karns the obvious one to call up? See what he has learned since the first time, plus get another evaluation on a guy that may be in the mix in 2014.

    I must be slipping. I have never even heard of Tyler Robertson. Where did he come from?

    Wally

    5 Aug 13 at 9:58 am

  4. Karns is the obvious call-up for a return trip; no 40-man move needed. For all the reasons you mentioned. I’ve seen Karns go 3 starts and get pummelled in each one. Do we think he’s learned anything? Wouldn’t you rather see what Rosenbaum can do?

    Robertson was a waiver claim a few weeks back from Minnesota. He’s been sitting in AAA ever since. Yet another loogy for depth.

    Todd Boss

    5 Aug 13 at 10:17 am

  5. Between Rosenbaum and Karns, I’d rather see Karns again. I do think it takes some pitchers a while for it to click. That being said, no reason to run Haren out there much longer, so maybe they both get a shot. For Rosenbaum and Roark, I’d look at what the 40 man implications are (meaning do we have to put them on the 40 man this offseason or not). If we have to, no reason not to see what they have now.

    As for Haren, I’d request waivers on him right now while he is going good, offer to eat all of his salary and see if they could get a C prospect for him. Probably won’t happen, but I think it is time to punt on the season and think about 2014.

    Wally

    5 Aug 13 at 11:21 am

  6. FYI, the Nats won the division, not the pennant. Winning the pennant means that you’ve won the League Championship Series and went to the World Series, which I’m fairly sure the Nats didn’t do last year.

    And in the case of finding a long reliever, Roark is definitely a good option. But how about someone like Matt Swynenberg from Harrisburg? He’s looked pretty good and according to Baseball Reference he’s had two five inning outings where he didn’t give up a run (one in what appears to be a spot start and another that was entirely in extra innings). Outside of that, Matt Grace has also looked very good this year with a WHIP of only 0.89 at Harrisburg so far, though he doesn’t go as long as Roark or Swynenberg and has only been in AA for half the season so far.

    James

    5 Aug 13 at 12:05 pm

  7. First time poster. I love this site and its contributors, and would sit back and read but have to pipe up on what I think everyone is missing.

    Namely, has anyone not seen the unbelievable run that * Tanner Roark * has been on since a stat-killing outing earlier this year? His stats have been positively as eye popping as any pitcher in the system other than Krol and Jordan at Harrisburg and Schwwartz when he was at Hagerstown.

    He does not walk people, can throw over 100 pitches, is effective in starting or relief, can strike people out when he is on, and has absolutely nothing more that he can show in AAA.

    For the flotsam on the 40 man that is Tyler Robertson, who will never pitch for the Nats, and considering other deadweights on the 40 man, promoting Roark is an easy option.

    And yes, Roark has been more effective than Rosenbaum this year.

    Forensicane

    5 Aug 13 at 12:31 pm

  8. Pennant vs Division: whoops. I just corrected the post inline. I promise, I meant “division” from the context of the sentence (as in, I know Gorzelanny’s one start was in game 161, and the team clinched the division at game 160).

    Honestly I have not really been really following relievers at any of the levels this year, outside of the loogy parade in Syracuse and the 40-man rostered Erik Davis. My reasoning (unfair or not) goes like this; you’re a starter in the minors until you fail, and then if you fail low enough you face such a long shot of moving up the chain that it almost isn’t worth the time. That being said, I like what Grace has done this year, and Swynenberg isn’t half bad either. Lets see how they do if they’re pushed to AAA next year. Grace is rule5 eligible this coming off-season and seems like he could be someone who could get plucked.

    Todd Boss

    5 Aug 13 at 1:12 pm

  9. Good to have you along!

    Roark; totally agree. He’s heading for MLFA so now’s a good a time as ever to see if he could be successful in a MLB pen.

    Robertson: I understood the reasoning behind the claim at the time. Now it seems like Krol is sticking in the majors and Abad has been more than servicable. Cedeno probably gets let go in the off-season, and Robertson may go as well. I’ll probably do a roster analysis piece at some point to talk about movement on the 40-man, but not until October. That being said, Rizzo doesn’t seem to make 40-man moves until he absolutely has to. There’s no value in keeping an empty spot on the roster right? I know I get impatient when I look at (for example) Carlos Rivero and wonder why he’s still on the roster. And when they needed his spot, they outrighted him.

    Todd Boss

    5 Aug 13 at 1:17 pm

  10. Rosenbaum; already had one rule5 draft and then return … what has changed with him between last year and now? He’s the same guy; Colorado (not exactly a bastion of high-end pitching) tried him and returned him. I’ll bet the Nats leave him be for one more off-season.

    Roark is a 6-year pro. He’s already missed two rule5 drafts and now he’s set to be a minor league free agent. If the team wants to keep him, they need to put him on the 40-man.

    Haren on waivers: i like your thinking … except that it would indicate the Nats waiving the white flag absolutely. And it would mean we’d have to find TWO starter replacements not just one. Don’t see it.

    Todd Boss

    5 Aug 13 at 1:20 pm

  11. Thanks Todd.Since I am feeling my oats, i will add a few more points. Let me go out on a limb and say that the promotion WILL be Roark for that reason (unless they feel Caleb Clay is more MLB ready. Why?

    Because Karns has not shown he is ready. True, he has stepped up his game in AA since his promotion. But even then, he showed a tendency to tire, has had variable command, and showed vulnerability to the longball. People should not generalize the Taylor Jordan scenario simply because at the time he first came up, Karns was promoted because everyone at AAA was unimpressive at the time, including Ohlendorf. It’s a bit later now, and Roark has really taken off, Clay has surprised and has the pedigree of impressing Nats brass awhile back at the Arizona Fall League, and has been on quite a run of consistent, inning-eating starts. Even Danny Rosenbaum has shown some improvement. Karns, in my opinion, is o the cusp f a permanent promotion to AAA to replace the nex pitcher promoted to Washington.

    Off topic, Todd, no one is writing about the incredible GCL run with the Dominican prospects and young Drew Ward. I know it’s the Rookie League, but since this is the Arms race, there may be a lot to the Latin American operation department of the Nats after all, given the very impressive numbers of Pineyro as a Cub and Mendez and Severino at Hagerstown. Can you explore the GCL Nats and the Dominican haul (Suero, Rodriguez, Valdez, Silvestre) in an upcoming column?

    Forensicane

    5 Aug 13 at 1:46 pm

  12. Roark vs Karns: yes I agree. I think Karns needs a bit more time in the minors. I’ll bet he just stays in AA to finish out the season (which has less than a month left) and pitch for Harrisburg in the playoffs. Starts 2014 in AAA and is next man in line to cover for any issues that arise.

    GCL: i’ll freely admit that I tend to just follow starters and their progress, at the expense of relievers. The hard time I have with the GCL is figuring out who a starter is. Giolito had 6 “starts” but only 12 innings. I want to see at least 5 innings to give credit where credit is due. Each year the Nats treat GCL differently; two years ago nearly 1/3 of the starts in the GCL went to guys on rehab assignments. This year it seems like a version of early spring training, with a bunch of guys going 2 innings each.

    DSL: I long ago gave up trying to track the DSL team and its arms. Just too many guys who were never going to even get to Florida. I kind of adopted the theory that when they make a complex team, they can start getting looked at. You’re right though, after a long drought the team is definitely graduating some DSL players up the ranks.

    Todd Boss

    5 Aug 13 at 2:57 pm

  13. Todd,

    I noticed the extended spring training quality, too. But then, you see the most effective starters at GCL include young guns Silvestre, Suero, J Rodriguez and look at Mendez at Hagerstown (and Pineyro now in the FSL) and wonder, hey, whats up with this nationals Latin pitching?

    And then you look closer and see that (courtesy of Luke Erickson) that the average age of the baters is a year younger than it was last year, and not even 20, and you see talents like Bautista, Encarnacon, Abreu, and Eusebio, and Severino at Hagerstown, and wonder whether they are on to something…obviously they are….

    Forensicane

    5 Aug 13 at 4:36 pm

  14. It’s going to be Karns in the vacated Taylor Jordan slot.

    And one quibble about your pitching summary; Gorzelanny wasn’t really all that effective last year, except when it didn’t matter. Much like Abad this year, ironically. I had this sense that Gorzo sucked under pressure, and confirmed it through B-R. If you look at his “clutch” stats, his effectiveness was inversely correlated to leverage. The higher the leverage, the worse he was. With a huge lead or deficit he was lights-out. Late & close? Terrible.

    John C.

    6 Aug 13 at 1:10 am

  15. Gorzelanny: would you rather have had Gorzelanny for 2yrs and $5.7M for this year and next, or to have watched Zach Duke burn up in flames and cost the team games while Gorzelanny continues to throw at a 140 ERA+ pace?

    For as “non-clutch” as he was last year … his stat line is awfully close this year to last. 2.88/2.78 ERA, his whip this year is 2/10′s better, his ERA+ is almost identical. And his Fip/xfip are lower this year too. This year in his 6 starts he’s still holding a 3.21 era with nearly a K/inning. In a better hitter’s park. Gee, wouldn’t that have been nice instead of watching Duke and Karns pitch to 8+ combined ERA in their covering starts? You don’t get much more clutch than starting a game right?

    The team was in a huge massive hurry to cut ties with Gorzelanny and Lannan this past off-season… with no real good replacements for either. And they used the cost savings for those two guys to buy … an overpriced closer that we didn’t need. If cutting those two guys was about saving the money, why turn around and blow it on an accessory?

    Maybe some of this is highsight analysis. But not all of it.

    Todd Boss

    6 Aug 13 at 9:21 am

  16. I agree with you on Gorzy: it was pennywise, pound foolish to go for World Series or Bust and try to save $1.5m here. I am not sure how much it actually cost them, but it was silly.

    Wally

    6 Aug 13 at 12:09 pm

  17. And now Roark had indeed been promoted. Good job, Rizzo.

    The next move should be to promote Karns immediately to AAA to see whether he has the stuff to join the rotation if Ohlendorf has a more sustained problem.

    With that, I would like to pipe in that this underscores how the prospect “rating” idea is overrated for a number of reasons. One, the notion that some are overlooked because they are “too old.” Some folks mature later (Steven Souza a perfect example – in my unqualified estimation he is the third best prospect in the Nationals system and WILL make it) and have never really had the Marrero experience of demonstrating that they have hit a ceiling at AAAA. Roark was discounted simply because he was 26 and was 6-17 last year. Tyler Moore was discounted and now is discounted again, Thankfully, and just as we see with Jake Johansen, the brass looks beyond the herd.

    Seeing that the Nationals traded for Roark in 2010 and Tatsuko is a respectable OG at AAA, perhas we are again being treated to a deal for an established if expensive ML for a real commodity, like the Marquis-Walters deal (I mean, did anyone think Walters would have this much promise by age 23?)

    Forensicane

    6 Aug 13 at 3:28 pm

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