Right-handed starting pitcher Chris Young opted out of his minor league contract after throwing four strong innings tonight, making it likely he will depart the Nationals for a major league deal and rob them of their best insurance policy behind their starting five.
The Nationals needed to place Young on their 25-man roster by yesterday in order to prevent Young from using the opt-out clause. Young has thrown nine consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, which he said has attracted enough “interest” from teams that he could draw a guaranteed major league contract.
Young, 33, has “loved” playing for the Nationals this spring and would like to stay. His agent and the Nationals, he said, have discussed the possibility of negotiating another, creative deal for him to stay. But Young has made pitching in the majors his top priority, and since the Nationals’ rotation remains healthy he knows that won’t be possible in Washington.
“I’m realistic that the roster is full. I understand that,” Young said. “We’ve talked about maybe trying to work something to where I can stay. We’re not there right now. But there’s interest from other clubs. I just have to weigh all the options and see what’s best for me and my family.
“I love it here. I would love to stay. This has been just a terrific spring training, being around a great group of baseball people. There’s nothing negative to stay about this place – maybe that they 15 pitchers deep. I’d like to work something out if I could be here. But if not, I understand the circumstances.”
Manager Davey Johnson seemed resigned to losing Young. “Ball’s in his court,” Johnson said. “He’s a helluva pitcher.”
It is not clear which teams had interest in Young. The New York Mets, who Young pitched for the past two seasons, had an evaluator in attendance with an assignment to watch Young’s start, according to a person familiar with the situation. They have a thin starting rotation, with ace Johan Santana to start the season on the disabled list.
“I feel like I’m a major league pitcher and I can help out a major league team,” Young said. “But I’d also like to help out the Washington Nationals, whenever and however that may be.”
In his past two starts, Young has allowed no earned runs in nine innings on three hits. Tonight, he allowed the Astros two hits – a bunt and a bloop – while walking one, hitting a batter and striking out two. Young called it his best start of the spring. He flummoxed hitters again, even with a fastball scouts clocked at 79 to 82 miles per hour and the wind blowing straight out.
“I don’t know how he does it,” one scout said.
Since he came to the Nationals, Young has pitched through the uncertainty of his contract situation, which he allowed has been difficult.
“It has, in all honesty,” Young said. “I don’t like to admit that, but it has. It’s just a different circumstance and situation than I’ve been in in my past, in my career. It is what it is. I’ve spent probably too much going through different scenarios.”
Aside from his contract status, Young has had his best spring in years. He returned last season from major shoulder surgery, slapped up a 3.09 ERA in his last eight starts and entered spring training simply preparing for the season, not attempting to rehab an injury. After making one minor league start and three major league outings, Young feels ready for the regular season.
“This year, it’s been great to have a normal offseason, a normal spring and focus on pitching,” Young said. “I don’t have any questions about my arm. It’s healthy, and it’s only going to get stronger. It’s just, I got to be somewhere.”
The uncertainty should end for him within 24 hours, but the Nationals will be left wondering who would replace a starter should they suffer attrition. Left-handed reliever Zach Duke may be the best candidate, followed by Ross Ohlendorf, Yunesky Maya and perhaps even prospect Nathan Karns.
The Nationals have made acquiring strong starting pitch depth a priority. Last season, the Nationals received 150 starts from their best five starters, a rare run of health and good fortune they know they are not likely to repeat.
So they will continue to scour for more depth. And Young, in all likelihood, will find a new home in a major league rotation.
“I love it here,” Young said. “I feel in certain ways I could provide, whether it’s insurance or just depth for these guys. I would love to make it work. I don’t know if it’s going to be able to.”