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How will No. 5 starter be chosen?

Mar 4, 2014, 6:00 AM EST

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Each of the three contenders for the final spot in the Nationals’ Opening Day rotation has had the opportunity to pitch two innings now, and if this competition is strictly about performance, Ross Detwiler (who was roughed up by the Yankees for four runs — three earned — and five hits Monday) clearly has taken a step behind Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark.

Spring training performance, however, is only one part of the equation when it comes to making this kind of decision. You could even argue it’s only a minor part of the equation.

While it certainly would be easy for the Nationals to simply pick the guy with the best numbers by month’s end, that’s not necessarily the wisest course of action. For one thing, as we’ve often seen, spring performance frequently bear no relationship to regular-season performance.

More than that, though, there are plenty of other factors the Nats need to take into consideration when making this call. Like the long-term ramifications of the decision.

Suppose the Nationals decided to go with Jordan as their season-opening No. 5 starter, a choice that almost certainly would send Detwiler to the bullpen. That might look like the right choice on March 31, but how will it look as the season plays out and the Nationals need to make a change to their rotation?

How would Detwiler deal with a demotion to the bullpen? And how would he then deal with potentially being bumped back up to the rotation if Jordan (or someone else) faltered or was injured? What would happen to Jordan if he experienced several bad starts to open his season? Would he be sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, and if so, what would that do to his psyche?

And what of Roark, who was far and away the best performer of the trio last season but also boasts the rare versatility to pitch effectively as a starter or reliever? He seems the least likely to be affected by a change in roles, or perhaps even a demotion to the minors.

Too often we get caught up in spring training competitions and focus on who will get the job on Opening Day. What we forget is that there’s a good chance all three will be needed in some capacity over the course of a 162-game season.

Which means Mike Rizzo and Matt Williams need to make the decision that’s best for their team’s long-term fortunes, not immediate gratification.

The easiest answer, in that regard, would be to make Detwiler the No. 5 starter, Roark a long reliever and Jordan the top guy in Syracuse. It’s easier to move Detwiler from the rotation to the bullpen than vice versa. Roark, as stated, seems capable of bouncing back and forth with little disruption. And Jordan, who remarkably has made only 23 total starts in his career above low-Class A — including his nine outings with the Nats last season — certainly wouldn’t be hurt getting some more experience, available to be summoned as soon as needed.

Then again, what if Jordan (who was impressive in tossing two scoreless innings against the Mets on Friday) cruises through the Grapefruit League and clearly outperforms the other two? Wouldn’t he deserve the nod?

What if Roark picks up right where he left off in September, continues to exceed expectations and mows down opposing lineups?

And what if Detwiler’s ragged second inning yesterday in Tampa was a precursor to more March struggles?

This is where the Nationals have to be careful in their decision-making. Spring training performance should matter to some extent. But it shouldn’t be the only thing that matters.

  1. sjm308 - Mar 4, 2014 at 7:25 AM

    I really liked the clarity of this article and there were several key points that helped me as a fan.
    1. Spring training is just a piece of the puzzle.
    2. Spring training performance often does not mean performance in the regular season will be the same (see Espinosa, Danny)
    3. A roster is a fluid situation

    The one thing that is pretty sure is that with no options remaining, Detwiler’s moves will all be done at the major league level. There is no way he will clear waivers so if he is moved, it will be from starter to pen (and maybe back again). I don’t think Mark mentioned it, and maybe its not in play, but I think Jordan is also probably still on some sort of innings limit so there is that to think about as well. (I could be wrong on that but I think all of our Tommy John guys were monitored for several seasons). If I read between the lines, he also seems to think that Roark is the one guy of the three that will handle this the best from a mental perspective (attitude is important – again, see Espinosa, Danny)

    Just one more thought. From this, I gather that Ohlendorf is not even in the picture for this #5 battle, but you have to consider him as a piece of the puzzle in that if he pitches really well he could determine Roark’s future. Hard to believe this but even Ohlendorf has an option so again, the only one of the 4 who is almost sure to make the club is Ross.

    What would I do? Have a long talk with Det. Make sure he is open and mentally ready to accept a move to the pen. Let them all continue to compete but even if everyone pitches really well, I start Roark as my #5, Jordan in AAA and Det & Ohlendorf in the pen.

    Go Nats!!

  2. natsjackinfl - Mar 4, 2014 at 8:00 AM

    Detwiler is still the front runner for me. I’ll give him a pass for yesterday’s debacle. Even he acknowledged that keeping his fastball around belt high is a recipe for disaster at any level.

    If he can get his breaking stuff working and maintain command, he’ll be just fine as a number 5 guy.

    Roark stands a better chance as a long man out of the bullpen and Taylor (who I like the most) needs to pitch every 5th day in Syracuse. He might be on some sort of limit but at 25 years old, it would be around 170 innings or so.

    And you are correct on Ohlendorf, sjm. He becomes veteran depth at Syracuse.

    • nats128 - Mar 4, 2014 at 8:22 AM

      I agree with you on Detwiler. Yesterday meant very little in making an overall assessment of Detwiler. He still has several more appearances to judge him by

    • Hiram Hover - Mar 4, 2014 at 9:52 AM


    • realdealnats - Mar 4, 2014 at 1:08 PM

      Scenario 1:
      If Det is #5, the most likely way things will go, then I lean toward Roark and a 2nd lefty for the BP. Love Roark’s grit, and don’t want to punish his spirit b/c others might take demotion less well. I’m suspicious of the thinking that says those who take demotion pouting will step up on a regular basis in the Bigs anyway. Either way that would be an undesirable softness not to be counted on. Cedeno or Gonzalez could be the left hander.

      Scenario 2:
      If Roark is #5, which I don’t mind but feel is less likely by far, then Det becomes the BP 2nd left hander and I probably go with Ayala or maybe Ohlendorf. Garcia is still an unknown commodity healthwise I think, but if he comes on solidly maybe he gets the 7th BP spot. Or they bring him up down the line when they are sure he has fully recovered.

      Either scenario I think Jordan starts in the minors. And probably Ohlendorf. Regarding relievers: Garcia ends up in the minors too as well as Solis. Delcarmen as well. And Ayala as likely as any of the 7th spot contenders ends up in AAA too.

  3. NatsLady - Mar 4, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    The main thing, to me, is that Detwiler has to be absolutely honest about his health. It doesn’t do the team any good at all if he wins the “competition” and breaks down again after four starts.

    As I see it, he has two issues, first, does his stuff play for multiple looks by hitters, and second, can he hold up physically for 150-175 pitches every five days?

    McCatty & co. can see how his stuff looks, whether his fastball is moving, whether he is locating any secondary pitches. What they can’t see is if his back is barking after an inning or two.

    • Section 222 - Mar 4, 2014 at 8:42 AM

      150-175 pitches? Are you including warmup tosses or something?

    • unkyd59 - Mar 4, 2014 at 8:58 AM


      • NatsLady - Mar 4, 2014 at 9:00 AM

        A girl can dream.

  4. nats128 - Mar 4, 2014 at 8:31 AM

    Wow, Nats got Mike Gonzalez back somehow. Theres another LHP for the pen.

    • realdealnats - Mar 4, 2014 at 1:09 PM

      Like getting Gonzalez back too. Wish they kept him last year.

      • therealjohnc - Mar 4, 2014 at 1:37 PM

        Of course, Gonzalez was pretty bad last year (-0.6 WAR). While I agree that not having a lefty in the bullpen other than Zach Duke was a mistake, I don’t agree that the lefties needed to be the 2012 trio. Of those three, Gorzelanny was mediocre, Burnett injured and Gonzalez simply not good. Keeping those three wouldn’t have solved the problem.

  5. Section 222 - Mar 4, 2014 at 8:41 AM

    I think we should remember that while Det started 2012 in the rotation, he went to the pen when C-M Wang came off the DL. He had his best season that year, so I’m not too worried about the effect on his psyche of doing that again if necessary. He seems just as able to handle a dual role as Roark. And is there any evidence that Jordan won’t be able to handle being sent down if he falters at the beginning of the season? I think Danny and Drew have made us too quick to assume that these players can’t deal with setbacks. Why not assume they are professionals and will do what’s necessary to help the team?

    At the beginning of the off season, Ohlendorf seemed a lock for the long man spot in the pen. Now, he’s a long shot to make the 25 man. Pretty cool that the options have developed so well (and that Ross has options).

  6. Theophilus T.S. - Mar 4, 2014 at 8:55 AM

    Detwiler’s outing yesterday was basically a bullpen session w/ batters. He threw a bunch of curve balls — most of them not very good, several were way up in the strike zone — and a number of cutters, which I gather he had never before thrown in a game. And of the four hitters he retired, three were Ks. For Detwiler, the start that matters is the last one before they break camp.

  7. David Proctor - Mar 4, 2014 at 9:17 AM

    I’m not really sure where Mike Gonzalez fits in. Perhaps he steals a spot from Cedeno? Or maybe he’s just minor league depth.

  8. Theophilus T.S. - Mar 4, 2014 at 9:19 AM

    222 — In 2012, near the end of ST, Detwiler was set for the BP (or maybe Syracuse) because Wang had cinched the fifth spot before pulling his hamstring in the last week of camp. So he was promoted before he was demoted, and then re-promoted in June, which makes the dynamics of this ST much different. Notwithstanding I agree that he will do whatever he’s asked without complaint or hyper-emotionalism.

  9. Section 222 - Mar 4, 2014 at 9:32 AM

    Theo — Det was never going to Syracuse –he was out of options thanks to JimBo’s giving him a cup of coffee in the majors 3 months after he signed. Wang was slated for the rotation because everyone thought (correctly) that his warmup routine was not suited to being a reliever. In any event, Det pitched well for seven starts but faltered in his 8th and 9th, right around the time that Wang was coming off the DL. So he went to the pen. If his psyche was delicate, he might have collapsed then. But he didn’t. So I don’t see how the dynamics are that different.

    Say what you will about Det’s pitching, he’s an even keel guy and a pro. Like you, I think he’ll be fine whatever happens. I’m pulling for him because he seems to have the tools most easily translated into a dominant year. Plus, he’s left-handed.

    • Theophilus T.S. - Mar 4, 2014 at 10:18 AM

      You’re correct about the options; I had suppressed that memory.

  10. Hiram Hover - Mar 4, 2014 at 9:45 AM

    So if I’m reading Mark correctly, he’s saying best 25 don’t necessarily go north.


    • NatsLady - Mar 4, 2014 at 9:51 AM

      Ha! That’s always true. Ask Bryce and Stras.

  11. natinalsgo - Mar 4, 2014 at 10:11 AM

    Some of the biggest mistakes has been sticking with bad signings. I fear Hairston could be one of those.

    • scnatsfan - Mar 4, 2014 at 10:46 AM


  12. karlkolchak - Mar 4, 2014 at 10:14 AM

    My guess is that Det starts the season in the rotation with a very short leash. If he struggles, he’ll be in the bullpen by May. It’s good that Jordan and Roark are there are solid backup options. With Chris Young bombing and the getting injured himself, the Nats did not have any rotation depth at the beginning of last season, and were only “saved” by Ohlendorf, Jordan and Roark all being huge surprises when given a chance to start.

    • natinalsgo - Mar 4, 2014 at 10:53 AM

      I thought that incumbents keep their jobs but that didn’t work for John Lannan when Det took his spot.

      I would like to see Detwiler clearly win the #5 during ST and not make it a situation where the best man didn’t win it but got it by default.

      Taylor Jordan could be helped by some Minor League work and Roark has shown the versatility in the pen.

      I still think it’s Detwiler’s job to lose.

      • karlkolchak - Mar 4, 2014 at 11:57 AM

        Difference being that Det is a former #6 overall pick and Lannan was an 11th rounder with limited talent. That sort of thing does really matter. I’m sure the Nats would prefer that Detwiler pitch at least acceptably for much of this season so that Jordan can gain more experience in AAA.

  13. zmunchkin - Mar 4, 2014 at 12:07 PM

    Jordan and Roark both have options and one of the most valuable things in baseball is good starters with options. It is rare for a team to go the whole season with just 5 starters. Unless one of them absolutely blows away Detwiler, they will likely both go to Syracuse as starters. That way they are ready to be starters with the Nats when needed.

    And the same issue with options exists in the BP. Assuming 7 BP positions, these are pretty much a lock: Clippard, Stammen, Storen, Soriano, Blevins. That leaves 2 spots for everyone else, e.g., Cedeno, Garcia, Matheus, Ohlendorf, . . . .

  14. janebeard - Mar 4, 2014 at 12:13 PM

    We have all good options here. In my head, I can make a case for any of the three, and feel myself rooting for that case to prevail. I’m glad I’m not the manager. I wish we could keep them all.

  15. therealjohnc - Mar 4, 2014 at 1:42 PM

    I thought Detwiler’s stuff in the first inning was excellent. He lost his location in the second and gave up some hits (and Walters made an error). Roark’s line is great, but he gave up some hard contact – one wicked line drive that would have decapitated Espi if he hadn’t caught it, and another liner to left that Almonte foolishly tried to stretch into a double. Kudos to Moore for hustling to the ball and throwing Almonte out. I think that Moore could have had another assist later in the game if his throw on Gardner’s double hadn’t been cut off by the SS.

    Bottom line, it’s not even the simple results that matter in evaluating players – it’s how their stuff looks, what kind of swings/contact they are giving up, etc.





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