Why the Nationals signed Chris Young, and why he feels healthy again

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Chris Young, left, talks with starting pitcher Ross Detwiler. (John McDonnell – The Washington Post)

Chris Young lumbered through the Nationals’ clubhouse Friday afternoon, a new arrival and impossible to miss. His head, perched atop his 6-foot-10 frame, nearly scraped the ceiling.

The Nationals signed Young to a minor league contract Thursday, adding an accomplished veteran to a staff without any holes in its rotation. General Manager Mike Rizzo acquired Young because of the hole, likely inevitable, yet to be created.

“It’s part of our plan for the season, to be as deep as we can,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got a good, young pitching staff, but it’s hard to count on five starters throughout the whole season. So we’re taking precautions in case something were to happen that we’ve got a legitimate, quality major league pitcher in the fold.”

Last year, the Nationals used only eight starting pitchers, and their top five starters made 150 of 162 starts. Their best five never missed a start for an involuntary reason – Stephen Strasburg was shut down, Ross Detwiler was sent to the bullpen in favor of Chien-Ming Wang and Gio Gonzalez rested for Game 161 in place of Tom Gorzelanny.

That barely ever happens. Only three teams in the majors – the Mariners, Reds and Giants – used fewer than eight starters. The league average was 10.3 starters over the course of the year, and 18 teams used at least 15 starters. Attrition is a reality for starting rotations, and 2012 for the Nationals served as a break from reality.

And so, in walked Young on Friday. Last year, Young returned from 2011 shoulder surgery and made 20 starts, compiling a 4.15 ERA and growing stronger as his season wore on. The Nationals planned to evaluate Young after he threw a bullpen session today, but Young felt excited about his health. He prepared for 2013 on a typical throwing program, rather than a rehab program, for the first time in several years.

“You can’t simulate being in a baseball environment throwing at home, but I’m as close to that as I could possibly be,” Young said. “I’ve thrown multiple bullpens and felt good. Arm strength feels better than it did at the end of last season. All in all, I’m encouraged by where I am. I’m excited for things to get started.”

Young said he chose the Nationals because he wanted to be part of a winning team and viewed them, “at this point, a model organization.” Imagine anyone saying that a few years ago.

Rizzo indicated Young had an opt-out clause in contract – if the Nationals try to send Young to the minors, he could decide whether to stay with the Nationals or trying to sign elsewhere.

“We discussed that,” Rizzo said. “It’s his choice if he wants to go to Triple-A or not, but we’ve had some discussions. I think if it’s in his best interest to go there, he certainly will.”

Young will not land in the majors on opening day unless the Nationals suffer an injury in spring training. He said he had not considered what he would choose if the Nationals sent him to Class AAA Syracuse.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there,” Young said. “Right now, I just felt like to be part of a winning culture, a winning environment – and for me, it’s really just about going out and pitching. No matter where I am, I got to pitch and pitch well. That’s my focus right now. All the other stuff is stuff I can’t control and stuff I won’t worry about. I’m just going to pitch the best that I can, wherever that is, and make the most of it.”

The Nationals have collected ample depth behind their rotation. Rizzo mentioned Class AAA starter Tanner Roark – one of the pitchers acquired from the Rangers in the 2010 trade of Cristian Guzman(!) – and non-roster invitee Ross Ohlendorf as standouts among that group. Ohlendorf, Rizzo said, does not have an opt-out clause in his deal.

Based on his history, though, Young would have a preferred place among the Nationals’ starting depth. “He steps into that role where if anything happened to any of my starters, he’d be right at the top of the list,” Manager Davey Johnson said.

It is list the Nationals, after their rare good fortune last year, will likely have to tap into.

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