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Spring training storyline No. 3: Who’s the 5th starter?

Feb 10, 2014, 6:00 AM EST

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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.

  1. scnatsfan - Feb 10, 2014 at 8:15 AM

    Somewhere in the back of my head I hear a voice saying Burnett is #5

    • Nats128 - Feb 10, 2014 at 8:39 AM

      I don’t as I think the Nats have enough in-house options unless Rizzo does it to make a trade.

  2. habs3 - Feb 10, 2014 at 8:48 AM

    It would be just dumb to bring in Burnet. With the quality of Roarke, Jordan and Detwiler it would be a waste of money. It would be same as if Rizzo went out and signed a player such as Ellsberry.

    • TimDz - Feb 10, 2014 at 9:34 AM

      I think that depends on your definition of “waste of money.”

      Do you sign Burnett to a 2 or three year deal? THAT would be a waste of money.

      Do you sign him to a one year deal with a decent base and a bunch of incentives to be your NUMBER FIVE pitcher? I think you do that…This may also make Detwiler trade bait, but, having Roark and Jordan to possibly put into the five hole in 2015 (not to mention Solis, who may end up being a gem…and Giolito), could make Burnett very much worth the money.

      Personally, I think having a guy like Burnett as the number five guy works well. This is a team that is ready to win and having a starting five of SS, Gio, Znn, Fister and Burnett would be lights out. If Matt Williams can get the complacent offense to average about 3.5 runs a game, this team could do some special things…

      • Faraz Shaikh - Feb 10, 2014 at 9:43 AM

        we average 4 R/G last season. I think we need about same or more than that to win lot of games.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Feb 10, 2014 at 9:42 AM

      one year deals are hardly waste of money. I will be the first one to criticize Rizzo for any waste of money but getting Burnett for a one-year deal is hardly that. Ellsbury got seven years on market. That’s waste of money since we already have 3 OFs that can start. Our fifth spot is still a bit in the air because we don’t know RD can be healthy, we don’t know Roark was a flash in the pan or not, we don’t know TJ’s development is for real. besides there is no such thing as too much pitching.

  3. scnatsfan - Feb 10, 2014 at 9:42 AM

    It’s not my money… waste all you want. If you are aking me is Burnett better then Jordan/Detwiler/Roark then the answer is yes… is he 10M$ better? Doesn’t matter, not my money.

  4. dgourds - Feb 10, 2014 at 9:55 AM

    You know, the late Winter signings of Jackson and Haren didn’t work out so well for us. And that was with less pitching depth than we have now. I just don’t think it would add many more wins for the 10-14 million ot would cost us. In fact, it may even cost us wins if Roark is as good as I think he is. And Burnett isn’t a slam dunk. Remember his season as a Yankee. There is more pressure here than Pittsburgh.

    • scnatsfan - Feb 10, 2014 at 9:59 AM

      I respectfully disagree. On Pittsburg he was tasked not only to be the #1 starter but a mentor to many young arms. Here he would be a #5 pitching against lesser starting pitchers. Plus he was on a pittsburg team that had been so bad for so long and was part of the turnaround. No doubt DC would be less pressure.

  5. micksback1 - Feb 10, 2014 at 9:57 AM

    no brainer, Det and Roarke, do not need to to sign anyone

  6. trochlis318 - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:19 AM

    To be honest, i’m in the taylor jordan fanclub, it seems like right now the pecking order is Detwiler, Roark, Jordan. Personally i am skeptical of Roark, sure people can turn it around but i just don’t think he will be consistent over the year to be a good pitcher. I think we should give Jordan the chance to prove himself there is a reason that rizzo decided to keep him when the tigers asked for him in the fister trade. 3.66 era in 50 innings as a rookie is pretty impressive to me.

  7. sjm308 - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    I just keep thinking about the Cardinals and how deep their pitching staff was/is. They kept Waca in the minors for the 1st part of the season, then moved him into the bullpen and finally he started and blew people away. They did the same thing with several other pitchers. If we did sign Burnett, it would give us even more depth. As long as we don’t stick with any one athlete as long as Davey/Rizzo did last year I would not mind seeing Burnett here. I realize a 12 million dollar contract gets a player a little longer rope but the reality is, we have options now and I guess I would rather have more options then fewer. Its not my money so if they can sign him, I support it.

    Great thing here is, if we lose out on him, we still have 3 viable options (I am not counting Ohlendorf) for that 5th spot.

    I have not heard anything on Karns. Is he still being counted on to start? Personally, he is another guy I see doing better in the bullpen (along with Detwiler), and what is the status on Christian Garcia who is another guy with lights out talent in my opinion.

    Go Nats!!!

  8. jd - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:36 AM

    1) Detwiler’s history screams relief pitcher based on the fact that lineups hit him harder the 2ns time around and harder still the 3rd time around.

    2) Roark is likely not as good as he looked last year. The really low BABIP says he was very lucky. Having said that he doesn’t have to be as good as he was last year to be a solid no. 5.

    3) Jordan is intriguing but his results in AA last year were also unrealistically good based on a very low BABIP. His performance in the big leagues though was very solid and of the 3 I like his potential the best.

    4) Burnett’s fortunes turned in Pittsburgh because many of the fly balls which left the yard in NY stayed in play in Pittsburgh. He can easily turn into a home run allowing machine. I say pass.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:56 AM

      he struck out more batters and got more groundballs. I don’t think his success with Pirates (or failure with Yankees) is as simple as you are making it to be.

    • Section 222 - Feb 10, 2014 at 4:29 PM

      I responded to your point #4 in my comment below, but I also wanted to say something in response to #1. Isn’t it true that virtually all pitchers have the same issue (getting hit harder the second time through, and harder still the third time through)? I’d probably agree that Det seems to have that problem more than our other starters, but he is our possible No. 5 starter. I doubt there are many No. 5’s that don’t have issues making it through the order 3 times.

  9. jd - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:41 AM


    My thoughts about Karns are the same as yours. He may very well turn into a close and a darn good one. My thoughts about signing a Burnett as a 5th starter is that if you have $12 – $15 mil burning a hole in your pocket then put it towards signing a Desmond or a Strasburg long term.

    • dgourds - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:52 AM


    • trochlis318 - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:54 AM

      eh not really, if its a 1 year deal how does adding ~13 million to this roster supplant money from rosters 5 years down the road for strasburg or desmond, Especially if this team is able to make a deep run in the playoffs due to an addition like Burnett then Lerner might be more inclined to keep the core together and have mulitple attempts at a champtionship.

  10. sunshinebobby - Feb 10, 2014 at 11:30 AM

    Unless you really miss another sailing of the S.S.Dan Haren, please, please pass on Burnett.

    My guess for the fifth starter: Roark, until he loses it. Then Taylor Jordan, until he loses it. Then Det, until he loses it. By then, it’s Sept. 1 and rosters expand and we have a 12-game lead over the Barves and it doesn’t make any difference.

  11. water47 - Feb 10, 2014 at 11:33 AM

    I am in favor of bringing in Burnett. on a one year deal. If he works out OK then great, if the “kids” develop and can supplant him then either you keep him until the end of the year or move the rest of his contract to a contender in need of a starter. And, if he is a bust, then you have tons of options to replace him.

    Ross has potential but Burnett is nice fit at the end of the rotation and remember most teams loose 1 or 2 starters for the year. Say, gulp, SS and Fister go down, then having Burnett and RD as the 4 & 5 makes me feel a lot better.

    And remember, he does not cost compensation so signing is purely a money play. Follow the Red Sox plan, avoid when possible signing players that cost compensation so that you can constantly restock the pipeline. I am not sure Soriano was worth the contract he got but the lost draft money and pick diminished the value of the signing.

  12. Section 222 - Feb 10, 2014 at 12:29 PM

    I have no idea whether Rizzo is seriously pursuing AJB, but I find it hard to anyone would prefer to have Det/Roark/Jordan as our No. 5 over him if he can be signed to a one-year deal. It may be too much to expect that he’ll put up ace-like numbers again, but as a No. 5 he would be incredible. He had the 8th best FIP and xFIP in baseball last year, better than Scherzer, Price, Hamels, and every Nationals starter. His HR/9 of .52 was fifth lowest in baseball among starters. His K/9 was the fourth highest in baseball, trailing only Darvish, Scherzer, and Annibal Sanchez. His WAR was 4.0, better than any Nat starter.

    The comparison with Jackson and Haren is silly. The year before they became a Nat neither of them did anything close to what AJB did last year.

    Finally, as to jd’s point about home runs, AJB had the second highest GB percentage in baseball. That’s why his home runs went down. Combine that with Matt Williams’ new focus on fielder position/shifts, and he could be an outstanding addition to our staff. Having Det in the bullpen and Roark and Jordan as injury insurance in AAA would be just fine with me.

    • Section 222 - Feb 10, 2014 at 12:31 PM

      One other point — without Burnett you can make a case for the Nats having the best rotation in baseball. At least they’re in the top 5. With him, you have the potential for a historically good pitching staff. Seriously, would any other team be even in the same ballpark, so to speak, 1 through 5??

    • sjm308 - Feb 10, 2014 at 12:31 PM

      Beat rationale yet!

      • sjm308 - Feb 10, 2014 at 12:32 PM

        BEST not beat

      • water47 - Feb 10, 2014 at 12:42 PM


        And for nothing more than few dollars! It is not a 3 year $39-$45 Million or two year $25-30 Million it works only if it is a one year deal. Now, if Rizzo wants a team or Mutual option for a second year just to get it done OK. If, Rizzo wants to put in $5 million in incentives to avoid a second year even better.

        But, you hit the nail on the head!

      • jd - Feb 10, 2014 at 1:51 PM

        And you guys know for sure that Burnett won’t put up a 5+ ERA and a 1 WAR player? because that’s exactly what he did for 2 full years in NY and he was 2 and 3 years younger at the time.

      • Section 222 - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:44 PM

        jd, of course we don’t know that. But do you really think Roark or Jordan or Det will be a better pitcher this year than Burnett? I sure don’t. Once we find out where he lands, I’ll be happy to bet you a virtual beer on that.

  13. David Proctor - Feb 10, 2014 at 12:38 PM

    • water47 - Feb 10, 2014 at 12:46 PM

      I like that Rizzo got the deal done. Not sure it means for Clips future as a Nat but now the team can just focus on winning!

  14. Section 222 - Feb 10, 2014 at 1:36 PM

    Glad the flexible file and trial allowed Clip’s deal to get done. The fact that Rizzo settled over the midpoint seems to indicate he thought there was a decent chance Clip would win.





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