Steve McCatty will start his annual journey to spring training tomorrow, the 18-hour haul in his Ford F-150 he makes with his wife in the passenger seat and, for as long as she allows it, the MLB channel on satellite radio. The drive from Michigan to Viera, Fla., takes two days. McCatty figures they can make it to Knoxville or Chattanooga on Friday, but his wife will decide how far they get. “I know I don’t run this ship,” McCatty said, laughing. “I’m way smarter than that.”
McCatty’s decisions will start to get harder once he arrives. The Nationals’ pitching coach will start sorting out the Nationals’ crowded starting rotation, which has as many as eight candidates to fill five spots. From the time pitchers and catchers officially report Sunday, the Nationals’ staff will have a transformed feel compared to years past.
“Sure, it’s different,” McCatty said in a phone conversation. “We used to be looking for a fourth or a fifth starter around this time. Now we have quality guys to fill those slots, and then some. It’s absolutely different. The attitude of everyone I’ve talked to, everyone is excited to get started. Everybody knows how good this team has a chance to be. That’s coming from other guys who are on other teams that look at us. It’s really a pretty cool thing.”
Each year I’ve covered Nationals spring training, no one is more excited than McCatty to start baseball back up again (except maybe Boz). On the eve of his trip south, McCatty shared some thoughts on a number of key issues pertaining to the Nationals’ rotation.
>>> McCatty has been in contact with all of his pitchers, many of whom have already begun firing bullpen sessions, including Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, the two rotation cornerstones who endured Tommy John surgeries about one year apart. Strasburg will be on a limit of roughly 160 innings this year, the same restriction Zimmermann had last season. During the spring, though, they’ll have the same regimen as any other starter.
Over the phone this morning, McCatty was talking about his No. 1 priority for the spring, saying he wanted everyone to finish healthy. And then he paused.
“And I don’t just mean Strasburg and Zimmermann,” McCatty said. “Everyone asks me about those two. I have no qualms about those guys. They’re going to be fine.”
Having spoken with coaches in Viera monitoring the work of pitchers who showed up early, McCatty reported that Zimmermann is throwing the ball “exceptionally well.”
McCatty chatted with Strasburg, who was throwing at home in San Diego, after a recent bullpen session. “He said, ‘I’m feel great, and I’m thinking about joining the PGA Tour,’ ” McCatty said. (Strasburg has been playing a lot of golf this offseason.)
>>> Chien-Ming Wang, who returned from major shoulder surgery last July, will be ready to start spring training at full speed.
>>> Edwin Jackson signed just two weeks ago, but the Nationals have already devised a couple theories on how he could take a step forward. Upon his signing, General Manager Mike Rizzo talked about how he could change his motion to hide the ball from batters in his wind-up.
McCatty offered another today. After watching video, McCatty believes Jackson may have tipped his pitches out of the wind-up without ever realizing it.
“These guys are so good, they look at every single thing,” McCatty said. “Hitting coaches are looking at every guy on video. You pick up on stuff. It’s simple as not laying your hands down on a slider or fastball or changeup. Once these guys see it, it makes a big difference.”
Over the past three seasons, the league has hit .283/.344/.438 with no runners on base against Jackson, when he is pitching with a wind-up. The league has hit .246/.308/.385 with men on, when he’s pitching from the stretch. If the Nationals really can make him more effective from the wind-up, the $11 million they spent to acquire Jackson could look like a bargain.
>>> With the Nationals taking at least six starters to camp, John Lannan suddenly became a likely odd man out after four years of solid performance. McCatty last spoke with Lannan just before the Nationals signed Jackson, a move that muddled Lannan’s immediate future. McCatty said he’d speak with Lannan again if the lefty wants to address his situation, but McCatty isn’t concerned about how Lannan will approach this spring.
“I love John,” McCatty said. “I’ve got tremendous respect for him as a person and as a pitcher. Him being the professional that he is, he’s going to give you 100 percent on everything. There’s been no decision. Whether he’s competing for a spot, I’m not going to say that, because he’s done a tremendous job for us.
“I’m sure he’s aware of the situation. He’s going to go out there and be a professional about it. He’s going to handle it the way he’s always handled things. He goes out and competes that day. He’ll let the chips fall.”
>>> The Nationals have yet to determine whether Ross Detwiler and Tom Gorzelanny will work as starters or relievers to start the spring. It seems more likely Detwiler will at least receive a starter or two, but Gorzelanny will probably serve exclusively as a reliever.