Nationals positional review, Part 4: Rotation

October 18, 2012

(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Each day this week, we’ll be taking stock of every Nationals’ positional group. In Part 4 of 5 today, we’ll look at the rotation. Previously, we studied the infieldoutfield and catcher.

2012 SEASON REVIEW

The Nationals would not have celebrated their first-ever playoff berth or National League East Division title had it not been for this handful of players. The starting rotation was the backbone of the team’s success and, luckily for the Nationals, suffered no devastating injuries. The Nationals used only 19 different pitchers this season, the third-lowest total in the majors. The starting rotation posted a 3.40 ERA, best in the NL and second best in baseball. They used only eight starters, or seven if you exclude the lone spot start by Tom Gorzelanny.

The Nationals’ rotation to start the season consisted of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. John Lannan, who started two opening days for the Nationals, was optioned to Class AAA Syracuse on the eve of the season opener in favor of Chien-Ming Wang and Detwiler. Wang would have been in the rotation to start the season, taking Detwiler’s spot, had he not strained his hamstring in spring training. Detwiler, who had toggled between starter and reliever already in his career, struggled and was sent to the bullpen when Wang returned in late May.

An inescapable story line of the Nationals and their rotation this season was the much-debated shutdown of Strasburg, who was pitching in his first full season since elbow ligament replacement Tommy John surgery in 2010. Since last season, the Nationals knew they were going to cap the right-handed starter’s innings and General Mike Rizzo stood firm on the team’s stance in spite of a pennant race and criticism. The Nationals worried not only about the state of his elbow but a large jump in innings for the young starter. 

Strasburg, the opening day starter, dazzled often during the season with his explosive fastball and head-scratching change-up and curveball. He had the stuff of a No. 1 starter and was learning to adjust to major league hitters. He went 15-6  with a 3.16 ERA and earned an all-star selection along with Gonzalez. The Nationals ended his season on Sept. 8 at 159 1/3 innings, a day after his second ragged start in three tries.

The Nationals enjoyed historic success behind the career season of Gonzalez. They shipped four of their best prospects to Oakland for him in the offseason and then signed him to an extension. He won a major league-best 21 wins, posted a 2.89 ERA and became a leading NL Cy Young Award candidate. He finished among the leaders in many of the major pitching categories: ninth-best earned run average, tops in lowest on-base plus slugging percentage against, second in hits allowed per nine innings, third-best strikeout rate, and more. Rizzo’s trade for him proved to be a resounding success.

Zimmermann, the final piece of the Nationals’ vaunted trio of starters, proved to be as dominating as his teammates. The right-hander’s pinpoint command and biting slider propelled him to a 12-8 record and 2.94 ERA over 195 2/3 innings, the most he has thrown in his career. He earned the NL Pitcher of the Month award in July, becoming the third Nationals starter to earn the distinction during the season. Strasburg earned the award in April and Gonzalez received it in May, and the Nationals became the first team since the 1979 Astros to accomplish the feat.

Detwiler returned to the rotation in June, having found new aggressiveness to his pitching approach in the bullpen. The left-hander began mastering his explosive fastball and sinker and became an undeniable mainstay of the rotation over the final three months of the season, finishing with a 3.40 ERA.

Jackson, a veteran right-hander with playoff experience, came to Washington on a one-year deal to churn through innings and he did just that, tossing 189 2/3 innings. He has devastating stuff but was, at times, inconsistent, posting a rotation-worst 4.03 ERA.

Lannan made two important starts in doubleheaders during the season, the first on July 21 against the Atlanta Braves that helped turn the crucial series. He took Strasburg’s spot in the rotation on Sept. 12 and filled in decently, finishing with a 4-1 record and a 4.13 ERA over 32 2/3 innings. Wang, who the Nationals signed for $4 million in the offseason, was hobbled by hamstring and hip injuries plud issues with mechanics. He struggled overall as a starter and reliever, finishing with a 6.68 ERA over 32 1/3 innings, most coming from five starts.

OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

The Nationals’ biggest offseason priority will be finding a No. 4 starter. Jackson said he is interested in talking with the Nationals and staying in Washington if the deal is right; he is seeking a multi-year agreement. While it’s possible, odds are that he is lured by a lucrative contract by a team that desperately needs starting pitching. The Nationals will likely not tender Lannan a contract, severing ties with a pitcher they paid $5 million to pitch mostly in the minors as an insurance policy for Strasburg’s shutdown and injuries.

Even with all the success the Nationals starting rotation enjoyed, there were signs of growing pains. All four main starters suffered through stretches of inconsistency not unexpected for younger pitchers. The two that stood out the most were the up-and-down waves of Strasburg and Zimmermann.

Strasburg said he will return next season better prepared to handle the jump in innings, a reason, perhaps, for his inconsistency toward the end of the season. He has vowed to return next season with better fastball command, building his arm strength with an offseason throwing program. He also hopes to correct a flaw he discovered: He said he was tipping his pitches.

(It’s also worth considering the amount of pressure Strasburg could face next season should the Nationals reach the playoffs again. Those in baseball who argued that the Nationals would have beaten the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS this season if Washington had not shut down Strasburg are essentially penciling him in for two wins in the opening playoff round next season.)

An offseason of rest and strengthening will also allow Zimmermann to put any concerns of his right shoulder soreness to rest. This season was the most he has ever pitched in his life, the first season back from Tommy John surgery in which he had no innings restraints. He attributed his up-and-down August to over-throwing, from which he bounced back in September. Gonzalez has yet to suffer a major injury and finished 2/3 of an inning shy of posting his third straight 200-inning season. He has proven durable and the Nationals will need that to continue.

Detwiler, who is arbitration-eligible and it’s possible the Nationals discuss an extension, should enter 2013 with confidence knowing that he is a firm part of the rotation. The Nationals are also likely to part ways with Wang.

POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

The Nationals are in the market for a No. 4 starter to slide into the rotation in between Zimmermann and Detwiler. And they will likely be looking for a veteran pitcher, someone equipped to handle the late-season and playoff pressures to shore up a rotation that, other than this October and Jackson, had never pitched in a pennant race or in the postseason.

Last season, the Nationals wanted to sign Mark Buerhle, a durable and veteran left-hander who chose the Miami Marlins, and that should inform the kind of starter they are seeking this winter. Veteran free agent starters that fit a similar billing include, and not exclusively: Kyle Lohse, Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster and Joe Saunders. Right-hander Peavy, 31, a former Cy Young Award winner, posted a 3.37 ERA over 219 innings with the Chicago White Sox and makes arguably the most sense. Right-hander Lohse, 34, who had a 2.86 ERA and is a Scott Boras client, could be a more expensive option.

PROSPECT TO WATCH

Alex Meyer, 22, is arguably the Nationals’ top prospect, a highly coveted pitcher who they see joining the rotation by 2014 at the latest. Meyer, the 23rd overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Kentucky, played in the All-Star Futures Game in July. The 6-foot-9 right-hander can hit as high as 98 mph with his fastball and has a wicked slider, which he holds with a knuckle curveball grip.

He went 7-4 with a 3.10 ERA and struck out 107 in 90 innings over 18 starts for Class A Hagerstown. Meyer was promoted to high-A Potomac in July, and went 3-2 with a 2.31 ERA and struck out 32 in 39 innings over seven starts. He was shut down for the season, his first one in professional baseball, after hitting 129 innings on the year.

Coming tomorrow: Bullpen

 

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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