My initial plan consisted of writing a post for each position around the field, detailing who will start and who will be on the bench come April 5. I quickly realized how boring that would be. The starting eight are all set. Willie Harris and Wil Nieves are guaranteed bench spots. That leaves four or five open bench positions, which will be filled by the following players: Mike Morse, Justin Maxwell, Ian Desmond, Alberto Gonzalez, Roger Bernadina, and a whole host of others. Ok, we are done with the series of articles. Now let’s move on to something that is interesting: the starting rotation.
The 2010 starting rotation for the Washington Nationals will consist of two distinct versions. Version 1 will be instantiated on Opening Day. Version 2 will come into existence sometime in late May or June. At this point, everyone knows what I mean when I say there will be two distinct rotations. The former will be led by Jason Marquis and John Lannan. The latter, of course, will be led by Stephen Strasburg. You can see the difference.
If I may digress for just a moment, I want to make it clear that Strasburg will not start the year in the Major Leagues. He has not yet thrown a competitive pitch in professional baseball (excluding the AFL). More importantly, if he begins the year in the Major Leagues, his service time clock begins. The Nationals, justifiably, want to delay Strasburg’s second payday as long as possible. This is the same routine that the Nationals used on Jordan Zimmermann last year. When Zimmermann was eventually promoted, he was, far and away, the Nationals best starting pitcher. By waiting just two months to promote Zimmermann, the Nationals gained a whole year of his service. The same will be true of Strasburg.
Now let’s get back on topic. It was announced last Friday that Lannan will start on Opening Day against Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies. Lannan then made it clear that he believes Marquis is the leader of the staff, pointing out his work ethic. Let’s make one thing clear: John Lannan was neither good nor bad; he was an average pitcher last season. Lannan posted a 3.88 K/9, 2.97 BB/9, and a 0.96 HR/9. He walked almost a half better less than the average pitcher, but he also struck out nearly half as many. In 2008, Lannan struck out 5.79 batters per nine innings, considerably better, but also gave up many more home runs. What Lannan does do well is get outs on balls in play. In his 423 Major League innings, he has a career .275 BABIP (league average is generally around .305). It is entirely possible that he has been lucky for two and a half years or that the sample size is considerably too small. Lannan is average in areas that he can control (i.e. strikeouts, walks, and home runs), but he is well above average in areas that he seemingly cannot control – but he can drastically change the probability that a certain event happens. In other words, he gets a lot of ground balls, which generally lead to outs or singles, and singles don’t hurt nearly as much as extra base hits.
With the top two slots in the rotation occupied by Lannan and Marquis, there remain only three open places. These remaining openings will be fought upon by right-handed pitchers Collin Balester, Livan Hernandez, J.D. Martin, Shairon Martis, Garrett Mock, and Craig Stammen and left-handed pitchers Matt Chico and Scott Olsen. People say that competition is good, but no one said anything about the quality of the competitors. I think it is safe to write out Balester and Martis from winning this bout and both pitchers will start with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs in 2010. The rest is a big mess. Hernandez, Martin, Mock, Stammen, and Olsen all provided quality (and some not-so-quality) innings for the Nationals last year. Chico started 31 games in 2007 and was often praised for not missing a turn in the rotation. Reports have stated that Chico is throwing the ball better than he ever has this spring, but I do not believe he has the talent to make the team.
Scott Olsen is coming off an injury-ridden 2009 season in which he had a small tear in his labrum, meaning that his health is still a question mark. Olsen’s best year came in 2006 when he struck out 8.27 batters per nine innings, had a 2.21 K/BB ratio, and 12-10 with a 4.04 ERA. These numbers are quite average, with the exception of the strikeouts. Yet, the Nationals’ management has a misinformed opinion of him. If you donated to Mark Zuckerman’s blog and receive Jim Riggleman’s daily press briefings (if you haven’t, I sincerely suggest that you do), you may have heard Riggleman state Olsen’s performance in Florida, in which he pitched 200 innings, as the benchmark for his eventual return to form. The fact is that Olsen hit the 200 inning plateau once (in 2008, 201 2/3 IP), and he stunk that year. His 4.20 ERA was the result of luck (and a .266 BABIP), and it would have been worse had he not stranded more than 70 percent of his base runners. The one thing that Olsen does have going for him is that he is left-handed, and he has pitched well against lefties throughout his career. If Olsen is truly healthy, maybe he can contribute at the level that Riggleman imagined happened in Florida.
I believe that the rotation in April of 2010 will consist of Lannan, Marquis, Olsen, Hernandez, and Mock. Hernandez has enough service time that he does not have to accept a demotion to the minor leagues, and he won’t waste his time in Syracuse. Plus, Mike Rizzo would not have signed Hernandez if he did not intend have him pitch. The reason that Mock gets the nod over Martin and Stammen is that the organization was clearly impressed with his “stuff” last season. Plus, it is becoming more and more obvious that Riggleman wants Stammen in the bullpen as a swingman. Furthermore, Martin has three options remaining compared to Mock’s one.
The Nationals rotation to start the year will be interesting to watch, but it might not be a lot of fun. It will be interesting to see how Olsen recovers from his injury, or if Mock can have success starting or if he is better suited for the bullpen. Come June, it will be a lot more fun to watch. The Nationals might even get some recognition with nationally broadcast games. Let’s just try to not get too ahead of ourselves in anticipation of the second release.
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Written by Sam Diament