Feb 10, 2014, 6:00 AM EST
As the countdown to spring training reaches its final days, we’re counting down the Nationals’ five biggest storylines of camp. We continue today with storyline No. 3: The open competition for the final spot in the starting rotation…
Ross Detwiler didn’t have to compete for his spot in the Nationals’ rotation one year ago. And if the longstanding mantra that a player can’t lose his job due to injury holds true, Detwiler shouldn’t have to compete for his spot this spring.
The Nationals, though, aren’t merely going to hand the final position in their Opening Day rotation to Detwiler, for two reasons: 1) The 27-year-old hasn’t seen a big-league mound since July, and 2) Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan pitched so well in Detwiler’s place, they’ve earned the right to compete for the spot in Viera.
Thus, we’ve got perhaps the most-compelling battle of the spring, with three qualified candidates for a job that in many previous years has gone to someone far less-worthy by default more than anything.
Any one of these three starters would be good enough to round out just about any big-league rotation. The Nationals, though, have room for only one.
Detwiler would appear to have a leg up on the others at the outset of camp. He has far more of a track record than his competitors, boasting a 3.79 ERA over 85 career big-league games (69 of them starts). But the left-hander has much yet to prove, most notably that he is fully recovered from a herniated disc in his lower back that limited him to only 13 starts last season.
Detwiler insisted two weeks ago at NatsFest that there’s no reason to be concerned with his health, that he proved he recovered last fall when he made several starts in the Florida instructional league (including a 6-inning appearance). But until club officials see him on a mound in the Grapefruit League, facing big-league hitters every fifth day in March, they won’t be fully convinced.
Even if healthy, Detwiler could potentially lose the competition to his two younger teammates, each who made a strong impression as a rookie in 2013.
Jordan was highly thought of within the organization before he made his major-league debut June 29 against the Mets. The right-hander, who bounced back from Tommy John surgery in the minors, then lived up to the billing over nine starts with the Nationals, posting a 3.66 ERA before the club shut him down for September under the same type of innings limit Stephen Strasburg faced the prior year.
Jordan, 25, remains quite raw, having pitched only 105 2/3 innings above Class A in his career, so the Nationals may determine he needs more seasoning before re-joining the big-league rotation. The same could be said of Roark, who was less of a factor at the start of 2013 but announced his presence with authority by going 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 14 late-season appearances (five of them starts).
Roark, 27, offers more options perhaps than the other two, having already shown an ability to be an effective long reliever late last summer. He could well wind up opening the season in the Nationals’ bullpen and serving as something of a swingman, available to start in case of emergency.
No matter how the spring competition plays out, there’s no denying the Nats’ improved pitching depth this season. A year ago, they desperately searched for a No. 6 starter, ultimately settling on journeyman Chris Young, who was both ineffective and injured at Syracuse and never merited a promotion.
Now, the Nationals have at least two extra starters at their disposal, a luxury plenty of clubs wish they could claim.
PITCHERS AND CATCHERS REPORT IN
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2014 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
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