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Offseason storyline No. 3: Who’s the fifth starter?

Oct 3, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT

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The Nationals are transitioning into offseason mode, and so are we. Over these first five days, we’ll run through the five biggest storylines of the winter for this club, continuing today with the No. 3 storyline: Whether to acquire a No. 5 starter or fill the position from within the system…

The Nationals entered each of the last two offseasons with an obvious need for a veteran starter to help fill out their rotation. They wound up spending a total of $24 million on Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren, for which they received a total of 20 wins, 25 losses and a 4.34 ERA over 61 starts and 358 2/3 innings.

Now the Nats find themselves in a similar predicament entering this winter, needing at least one more starter to fill out their rotation. The difference this time around: They may actually have viable candidates from within to hold the job and don’t feel forced to spend money on acquiring another arm.

Thanks to the emergence of young right-hander Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan — plus the expected arrival of another wave of young pitchers including right-handers A.J. Cole, Taylor Hill and Nate Karns along with lefties Sammy Solis, Robbie Ray and Matt Purke — the Nationals believe they have solved the pitching depth problem that plagued them the last two seasons.

Combine that with the return of the top trio of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez and the anticipated return of Ross Detwiler from an injury-plagued 2013, and the Nationals don’t particularly feel the need to add another starter this winter.

“We certainly go four deep with a healthy Detwiler,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “With the depth that we have in our young starting pitching, we could certainly fill from within. I don’t think it’s a necessity to go outside the organization, either in the free-agent market or in the trade market. But we’re certainly not going to back away from looking at the free-agent and the trade market to improve the club.”

Which isn’t to say the Nationals don’t face several pitching question marks entering 2014.

As much as they want to believe Detwiler will be fine after battling a lingering back strain this season, the Nationals can’t be 100 percent confident he’ll return to peak form. The 27-year-old made only 13 starts this year, posting a 4.04 ERA, surrendering a career-worst 11.6 hits per nine innings and requiring multiple DL stints.

The good news: Detwiler experienced no back issues during his September rehab and finished out the season pitching every five days in the Florida instructional league. The bad news: The Nationals don’t know if that’s enough evidence to suggest he has completely healed, or whether he still needs to throw more innings this winter to prove it.

“We need to see if this injury is going to resurface,” Davey Johnson said in late-September. “As many starts as he can get, appearances, is I think important. He needs to be reliable next year.”

If Detwiler is fine, the Nationals will feel good entering the season with the left-hander as their No. 4 starter and one of their young arms as the No. 5 hurler, most likely Roark or Jordan.

Each rookie impressed in limited time this season. Jordan burst onto the scene after opening the year at Class A Potomac and wound up posting a 3.66 ERA in nine big-league starts before he was shut down with his total innings count at 142 one year following Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

Roark, meanwhile, debuted for the Nationals as a long reliever in August, then forced his way into the rotation and finished a stunning 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 14 appearances (five starts), convincing his then-manager he deserves a spot in the 2014 rotation.

“Every time he’s gone out there, I’ve liked his work,” Johnson said. “He makes his pitches. He’s unfazed. If we boot a ball behind him, he goes right after them. He’s got a heck of a shot next year of making this club.”

If, by some chance, Rizzo decides he needs more of a sure thing, there are several options on the free-agent market. None, though, will come cheap.

Among the soon-to-be-available names: Matt Garza, A.J. Burnett, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana and Tim Lincecum.

  1. MicheleS - Oct 3, 2013 at 6:59 AM

    The key is going to be Det. What is the status of his back. If he is okay, then I think it’s fine to not go out for a free agent. Ross eat your cookies and get healthy during the off season.

    • Theophilus T.S. - Oct 3, 2013 at 8:34 AM

      I agree that Detweiler is the most important unknown. It’s a lot more likely they can find one pitcher on their shelves than two. Two-three weeks in the Dominican League would be good for him. I think his career high is still somewhere around 140-150 innings — and he’s had a lot of time off this year. Also, DL is a curveball/slider hitters league and either way it would do him some good: pound the FB or work on his secondary pitches.

  2. TimDz - Oct 3, 2013 at 7:43 AM

    I think the key with Ross is not so much pitching more this winter, but instead getting a personal trainer that can help him strengthen his lower body and get more flexibility in his upper body.

    I’d have him pass on the cookies….

  3. natsfan1a - Oct 3, 2013 at 8:03 AM

    So, toss the cookies? What?

  4. Theophilus T.S. - Oct 3, 2013 at 8:29 AM

    There are injury questions about most of the names on Mark’s FA list except Burnett. I can’t imagine Burnett actually retiring after his and the Pirates’ achievements this year. If he’s going to come back he’ll want Haren+ dollars and probably two or more years. I don’t see that meshing w/ the Nats’ needs.

    Most of the Nats’ “internal options” are chimeras. Karns proved he wasn’t ready for prime time; Jordan gave a noble effort but wasn’t able to push the team to the finish line in any of his starts. I’m much more assured of Jordan’s long-term future than Karns’s but I would want him to be a more finished project before I threw him into the regular rotation.

    Roark is the only MiL pitcher ready for the majors. He’s showed the physical strength to go seven innings; the doubt remaining is whether his stuff is good enuf to go through the order three times.I think (A) he’s likely to be No. 5 when they break camp; (B) we’ll find out about his league-worthiness after about 3-4 starts in April-May. His style of pitching is actually like Burnett’s — he lives high in the strike zone — but doesn’t have the consistent 95 mph pop that Burnett does.

    My guess is Rizzo won’t spend anywhere close to the money he threw at Jackson and Haren, confident that at least one of Roark, Jordan, Karns will be ready to take a regular turn by mid-season. With his mind on Roark opening the year on the 25-man, Rizzo’s targets will be some 28-y/o “command and control” guy like Gorzellany who can go both ways (there are a lot of empty seats in the 2014 bullpen) and a couple of incomplete rehab projects he can stash at Syracuse.

  5. Muddy Ruel - Oct 3, 2013 at 8:34 AM

    Can we get a “storyline” sometime this off season for “updates” in which you’d discuss the status of: (1) the MASN contract, (2) the P-Nats new stadium scheduled for 2015, (3) the Suns possible move to Fredericksburg, (4) the continuation of the affiliation after 2014 with attendence-challenged Syracuse where the Nats are much unloved, and (5) the move to Fort Meyers, FL, after 2014, for training? Re the MASN dispute, I’m finding very little detail and I’d like to know why the Nats can’t sue MASN and/or the MLB to resolve the dispute. It’s a contract, right? The Nats have a right to reset the payments to market at five year intervals and there’s a mechanism to do that; if the parties can’t agree on the amount — and why not, there’s a mediator, right? — why can’t they go to court.? Thanks.

    • Eugene in Oregon - Oct 3, 2013 at 8:46 AM

      The Nats won’t sue MASN because MASN = the O’s = Peter Angelos. And there’s an unwritten rule that MLB owners don’t sue each other (or MLB). Part of the reason is an ‘old boy’s club’ mentality and another part is fear that any such suit could lead to a court reopening the whole anti-trust exemption question. If the carrier were ComCast or FoxSports or another commercial entity, you could be sure a lawsuit would have been filed months (years?) ago.

      • Theophilus T.S. - Oct 3, 2013 at 9:11 AM

        Eugene —

        “Old boys club” applies only when, by old boys’ standards, the amounts are relatively trivial. By my guess the amount at issue, including previous years, is probably somewhere close to $100MM. Not trivial. And given Andros’s intransigience over the disposition of the Expos I doubt anyone in MLB has scruples about suing him.

        The real issue is, what would the situation be if the Nats sued successfully? Given the reported size of the Nationals’ revenue-sharing payments the insuperable issue — which can’t be resolved by a lawsuit — is that MASN is not, at least as currently operated, capable of generating the kind of revenue to which the Nats are entitled. If the operator was Comcast or Fox, the Nats would have gotten their deal a long time ago; nobody would have to talk about suing somebody.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Oct 3, 2013 at 1:35 PM

        Theo – Agree, in general, but that’s where you get into the other half of my abbreviated argument above: fear of the broader legal ramifications. The owners worry that a wild-card like Peter Angelos, to defend his $$$s, might well counter-sue in a way that threatens baseball’s legal (read anti-trust) status. I’m pretty sure (don’t have time right now to find the citation) that he threatened something similar in the past (which, even though it would hurt him too, is not beyond him and scares the bejesus out of Bud Selig and MLB lawyers). Thus, Commissioner Selig is loath to push Mr. Angelos too hard or too far. I’m not justifying it, just offering what I understand as the underlying motivations (or lack thereof).

    • scbilly - Oct 3, 2013 at 12:01 PM

      The Nats are due a reset but it’s supposed to be negotiated between parties who can’t seem to agree. You can be sure the contract defines exactly how an impasse in negotiations is supposed to get resolved. We’ve been hearing for a year or more that the matter is in the Commissioner’s office for resolution, and it’s always bad news when you have to depend on Bud Selig to fix a problem. Since this boat anchor of a contract with MASN was a product of Bud’s fear of offending Angelos in the first place, I’m not optimistic about a resolution favorable to the Nats. I also keep hearing that Selig may leave this for the next commissioner to decide when he (or she, but who are we kidding) takes over after the 2014 season. That would mean they’d be more than halfway to the next reset before closing this one, but it’s MLB so who would really be surprised.

      Agree that this would be an excellent subject for a reported piece sometime in the next few weeks while we’re waiting for news on the next manager.

  6. Theophilus T.S. - Oct 3, 2013 at 8:40 AM

    On reflection, phrase should be “Roark . . .has shown,” not “has showed.”

  7. john - Oct 3, 2013 at 9:11 AM

    Is Detwiler only 23? I thought he was older

    • Faraz Shaikh - Oct 3, 2013 at 9:23 AM

      he is 27YO.

      • NatsLady - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:19 AM

        That was my first question. He started 33 games in 2012. Other than that he hasn’t started more than 15 since he came up in 2009 (I don’t count 2007).

        2009 – 14
        2010 – 5
        2011 – 10
        2012 – 33
        2013 – 13

        My feeling is this. In 2012 the Nats were an 85-win team + or – 5 games. They out performed 90 games by 8 because of luck and the health of the starting rotation.

        Rizzo attempted to improve the team by 5 games with his moves, i.e., to a 90-win team + or – 5. And that’s exactly what happened. The Nats were NEVER a 98-win team with a 5 win improvement. They were an 85-win team in 2012 with a 5 win improvement in 2013, and the rest is baseball.

      • NatsLady - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:25 AM

        Sorry, started 27 games in 2012. Don’t think that affects my main point. There has only been ONE season where Detwiler has been a reliable member of the rotation. I think counting on him for 2014 is a fool’s errand. I don’t mind starting with him in mind if he shows well in spring training, but I just have a lot of doubts and hope Rizzo has a backup plan.

      • Sec 3, My Sofa - Oct 3, 2013 at 11:52 AM

        Detwiler will be 28 next March.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Oct 3, 2013 at 1:13 PM

        when is he gonna enter his prime?

    • Doc - Oct 3, 2013 at 11:23 AM

      Actually, Mark thinks that Det lost 4 years by being on the DL.

      • NatsLady - Oct 3, 2013 at 2:17 PM

        That doesn’t make him reliable. :) Let him go into the BP as a LH reliever. If he can prove he is more than that, great.

  8. derwink - Oct 3, 2013 at 9:26 AM

    Roark has earned a chance to be #5 OR is there another prospects for a Gio-type pitcher trade coming? That would make Detwiler #5.

    These players are “assets”: Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan, A.J. Cole, Taylor Hill and Nate Karns along with lefties Sammy Solis, Robbie Ray and Matt Purke

  9. Ghost of Steve M. - Oct 3, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    My first thought reading the headline about the #5 is the health if the #4. Detwiler is a key to either the balanced rotation or a blockbuster trade.

  10. dgourds - Oct 3, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    In my mind, it’s not a question whether Roark is the #5, it’s whether Detweiler is the #5. Roark impressed me enough to lock up #4. No other pitcher on the Nats pitched nearly as well the last two months of the season. And Theophilis, I completelys disagree with your assessment of Roark. He hit spots consistently-not just high in the zone. And he consistently hit 94. People like to pidgeon hole him as a junk baller just because he commanded his curve so well. But the dude throws hard with command. In my book, he was the shining bright spot of the 2013 season. He’s shown more in two months than Detweiler has in his entire career.

    • Mrsb loves the Nats - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:04 AM

      Det would be over Roark just becuz of experience (I would think)…

      At first I was thinking it may have somethign to do with how the starting rotation is ordered too with the R/L/R/L/R split…

      But Im to the point and i have been here for a while now to just move Det to the BP… Save him from himself.

      Plus he can be a lefty long innings man, if we need 1… he can complement Stammen or RossO…

      • letswin3 - Oct 3, 2013 at 2:01 PM

        Det to the BP? Interesting, Mrsb.

  11. Mrsb loves the Nats - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    Had to take a few days away…

    I think you have a solid #5 with Roark…

    Think you need to look in FA for a LHP… Move Det to the BP…

    Det cant stay healthy and we cant keep going into all these seasons with the same question of how to look at the bottom of the rotation…

  12. rogieshan - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:18 AM

    Whoever they are, the #4 & #5 starters need to be workhorses who can be counted on to eat innings and save the bullpen from overwork, something the club didn’t get consistently this season from Haren and others. We certainly have enough candidates in-house, but will the book on Roark, Jordan & Karns be an easier read the second time around? And can Detwiler come back and show enough endurance after hardly pitching at all for twelve months?

  13. langleyclub - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:19 AM

    Number of Detwiler starts over the last 4 years:

    2010: 15
    2011: 26
    2012: 27
    2013: 13

    An average of 20 starts a year. Obviously, Det will be in the mix in 2014, but the Nats will need quality starting pitching depth to contend.

  14. Mrsb loves the Nats - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    Re: Offseason Priority #1 – I definitely like Girardi… I dont have anything against Knorr but I am not sure he is ready yet… I have a slight issue in how he calls out his players… Dont get me wrong – i thought it was effective with a vet like Sori but not good with a 20 year old clearly dinged up Harper…

    But whoever comes in, I do hope they change the batting philosophy of the long ball all the time… That is and has been the most frustrating… Sometimes its okay to shorten the swing for the oppo boppo… Also need a new 3B coach and although I like McCatty – may need to change that one too… Tired of seeing our pitchers not being able to hold runners, etc….

  15. Candide - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    Not just a question of whether or not Det stays healthy. You have to assume SOMEONE will get unexpectedly injured. Last year, Mattheus, who, I suspect, never completely recovered from his loss to his locker door. Hand may have healed, but who knows how the shape of the healed bones might have changed subtly, and slightly altered his grip and delivery? My theory, anyway.

    Guys get injured even when you aren’t worried about them. Nobody was worried about our top 4 starters last season, and we figured Haren was probably okay after he’d had a strong second half of 2012. And yet, three of those five missed starts or even hit the DL because of injuries (okay, Haren’s head was injured more than his arm…).

    So what happens if Det goes down again and another of the rotation has to miss a couple of starts, or worse? I like Roark and Det in 4-5, but do we have 6-7 waiting in the wings humming, “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play?”

  16. Mrsb loves the Nats - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    Re: Offseason Priority #2 – I would keep the line up in tact. If you believe T Moore is the answer at 1b then definitely platoon he and LaRoche (but I am not sure that T Moore is the answer – I try to keep in mind that 1 of Adam’s worst years seemingly is very comparable to T Moore’s best… not sure that really works)… I hope they add a RH OF…

    I mean seriously, no debate here, we need to revamp the BP and Bench… Lombo and Moore are the only 2 I would keep… And yes, I know Hairston is signed up to 2015….

    Also want to see Ryan Mattheus gone.. and Abad….

  17. Jw - Oct 3, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    Detwiler can’t be counted on. Since the day he was drafted he’s needed to bulk up. Hasn’t done so. Now he needs to play winter ball but apparently won’t do it. Trade him.

  18. deelizzle - Oct 3, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    No mention of David Price?

  19. Section 222 - Oct 3, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    With Det being the question mark, I think Rizzo has to go after one of the FAs for the rotation. Best if he can get someone on a 1-year deal, in which case it hardly matters how much they pay him. I’d be fine with any of the names on Mark’s list. Not all of them are going to command long term deals because of questions about their health. So go for it Mike. It’s fine to have Roark and Jordan as injury replacements, but I would not rely on Det and those two for 60 starts next year. That’s too big of a leap.

    bowdenball, have you paid up on our bet? ;-)

    • Jw - Oct 3, 2013 at 11:38 AM

      There’s more than enough organizational depth for another Gio-style trade for an established starter. Someone like David Price would be a great target.

      • Section 222 - Oct 3, 2013 at 12:11 PM

        Love that idea! He’s a true ace.

      • TimDz - Oct 3, 2013 at 1:13 PM

        If Rizzo mentions Price, you can bet your last dollar that Tampa Bay mentions either Harper or Rendon as a center piece….
        The Tampa GM only makes deals where his team is the clear and runaway victor…..I don’t see Rizzo making such a deal….

      • Faraz Shaikh - Oct 3, 2013 at 2:21 PM

        if he agrees to an extension, I can see us trading from our whatever pitching depth we have. otherwise, no point in upgrading pitching by trading major league hitters when our offense has not been good.

  20. veejh - Oct 3, 2013 at 11:55 AM

    Just put Detwiler back in long relief. I have more faith in Roark or Jordan at this point because of Detwiler’s lack of alternate pitches. 95% fastballs can only be so effective.

  21. JamesFan - Oct 3, 2013 at 12:28 PM

    I predict that Rizzo will add pitching depth by trade rather than free agency. He’s got a lot of talent to move. Some would hurt, some not. The Nats should contingency plan for two starters to go down for extended periods each year and develop a rational plan to replace them. Det is fragile and cannot be counted on for a whole season and if he does go all the way, he’s likely to fade down the stretch. Roark is clearly a ML ready pitcher. Jordan is a maybe.

    I would say they need one long man in the pen who can start. Maybe Jordan. Then they need at least two Olendorf kind of guys in AAA as backups.

  22. tcostant - Oct 3, 2013 at 1:24 PM

    I see the Nationals bringing in a few pass their prime vets in to fight with Tanner Roark for the #5 job. If one of them has a Colon like resurgance that he gets the #5 spot, otherwise it will be Roark.

  23. alexva6 - Oct 3, 2013 at 1:31 PM

    with Detwiler’s health a question mark I don’t see Rizzo going into the season without a veteran #5 starter. the one year deal appears to be a good concept to me and there will be plenty of names available.

    Jordan and Karns belong in AAA and provide adequate emergency depth along with Roark on the roster in the bullpen.

  24. Faraz Shaikh - Oct 3, 2013 at 2:19 PM

    I want to go into next spring training with fewest question marks possible. detwiler is a question mark, resolve that somehow. espinosa is a question mark, resolve that somehow. injuries do happen during the season so there is no point, going into the season with injured/injury risk players.

  25. Drew - Oct 3, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    I think Price is a real possibility.

    The Nats have a dozen promising pitching prospects: Roark, Jordan, Cole, Ray, Purke, Solis, Hill, Mooneyham, Schwartz, Johansen, Giolito, Treinen. That doesn’t include merely serviceable options like Rosenbaum, Clay and Turnbull.

    The Nats could easily give up three pitching prospects and one of the second basemen in a deal for Price. Then it gets hard. Are you willing to part with Goodwin, too?

    A deal like that would surely tempt the Rays, who have to deal Price or get nothing when he walks.

    • texnat1 - Oct 3, 2013 at 5:32 PM

      If you are going to throw away the farm, I would do it for Stanton before Price.

      Generally speaking, I would prefer the Nats take their chances with what they have pitching wise and spend any money/prospects they decide to part with on the lineup and then the bullpen.

      • Sonny G 10 - Oct 3, 2013 at 11:19 PM

        +1; Stanton you could use everyday, Price only once every 5 days.

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