Mar 4, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
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.
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