Nationals positional review, Part 4: Starters

(Maddie Meyer/TWP)

(Maddie Meyer/TWP)

Each weekday, we’ll take stock of every Nationals positional group. In Part 4 of 5, we look at the starting pitchers. In previous installments, we looked at the infieldthe outfield and the catchers.

2013 SEASON REVIEW

Part of the Nationals‘ belief that they would compete deep into the playoffs, a sentiment shared by many across the sport, was the team’s starting rotation. In 2012, the starters were the backbone and driving force of the team. The heralded rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and, for at least most of the season, Ross Detwiler punched up the second best ERA (3.40) in the majors and best in the National League. In 2013, the Nationals returned everyone except Jackson, instead choosing Dan Haren over a return of Jackson or John Lannan. Strasburg was also entering his first full season of his career, the chains of his much-debated inning limit removed.

The Nationals knew they were taking a risk by spending $13 million on Haren, who was coming off the worst season of his impressive career, but the deal was for only one year. They believed Haren’s back and hip weren’t going to be an issue, and they proved not to be major problems in 2013. Instead, other factors helped prevent the Nationals rotation from matching or exceeding the 2012 greatness, including injuries and another shaky year from Haren. As a whole, the Nationals rotation posted a 3.60 ERA in 2013, good for seventh in the majors.

Just like the rest of the team, injuries help impede the development and success of the Nationals rotation. Strasburg entered the season hoping to be the 200-inning workhorse, and he certainly looked the part with a stronger body, but injuries and some pitching inconsistencies allowed him to toss only 183 innings over 30 starts. In 2012, with an innings limit, he threw 159 1/3 innings over 28 starts. He dealt with different types of adversity in 2013: a lat injury, a forearm scare, then actual forearm tightness in September, rain delays, meltdowns after fielding errors behind him, an ejection and more. He finished with an 8-9 record.

After questions about his mental toughness early in the season following his inability to recover from errors, particularly following a mid-May loss to the Cubs, Strasburg responded. He did a better job of tuning out mistakes behind him, and his own, and focusing solely on his job. He pitched into the eighth inning for the first time in his career on May 16. He threw his first complete game on Aug. 11. He nearly had another on Aug. 22.

Strasburg admits he is still learning, but by many measures he had a better 2013 season. He was doomed, however, by a criminal lack of run support. He finished with a 3.00 ERA (less than 2012), allowed 6.7 hits per nine innings (also less than 2012) and .207 batting average against (also lower than 2012). His strikeout rate dropped from an absurd 11.1 K/9 in 2012 to a still-high 9.4 K/9 in 2013. He showed his developing ability to pitch to contact, which allowed him to go deeper into game.

While Strasburg improved some, Zimmermann made the largest leap of any Nationals starter. Zimmermann has always shown the aptitude and makeup to improve, and he has been the Nationals’ most consistent starter since 2011. In 2013, he posted a 19-9 record, tying the NL lead, a 3.25 ERA, 213 1/3 innings, four complete games including two shutouts and his first-ever all-star appearance. And, more than anything, his jump onto the national scene came because of the improvement of his offspeed pitches, such as his change-up, and because he finally received the run support he so often lacked.

Zimmermann faded some in the second half, around the time he dealt with a neck injury. But as he finally moved past it, he pitched like the Nationals best starter again. He relied on precision and aggressiveness, inviting early contact from hitters, and he was tied for fifth in the majors with a 68 percent strike percentage.

In his second season with the team, Gonzalez, on the other hand, finished with a 3.36 ERA, an 11-8 record and 192 strikeouts over 195 2/3 innings. His 2012 season was the best of his career — a second all-star selection, a 2.89 ERA and 21 wins — but 2013 was inconsistent. Gonzalez entered the season with the cloud of an MLB investigation into his connection, along with several other major leaguers, to a PED-dispending clinic, Biogenesis, in South Florida. Gonzalez was cleared in August but the cloud of the probe weighed on him.

Gonzalez still finished with good numbers. He allowed 17 home runs, nearly double the nine he allowed in 2012. His command was sometimes inconsistent, and Davey Johnson and Wilson Ramos often urged him to be more aggressive with hitters. His 2.53 K/BB rate was worse than 2012. His best stretch was a 2.10 ERA from May through June. He was also doomed by poor run support. And, thankfully for the Nationals, he suffered no major injuries in his sixth season in the major leagues.

Haren struggled from the start of the season. He posted a 6.15 ERA over his first 15 starts, the worst mark in baseball. He battled himself, concerns over his velocity, second-guessed his pitch selection, allowed too many home runs while still striking out a fair share of batters and was close to depressed about his performance. At his lowest point, he hit the disabled list for a phantom shoulder injury in the summer that required a cortisone shot — one that Johnson felt Haren needed.

After that, Haren pitched much better. He kept the ball down in the strike zone. He stopped caring about his velocity and proving it to observers. And despite a small rough patch in late August, he punched up a 3.29 ERA over his final 16 games, 15 of them starts. He finished with a career-worst 4.67 ERA over 169 2/3 innings while striking out 151 and allowing 28 home runs.

Detwiler looked poised to make another jump in his development in 2013. He pitched well for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. For the first month of the season, he looked strong. Then, injuries derailed the season. He missed almost a month with an oblique strain. When he returned in June, he just wasn’t the same. Later, it was discovered he had a ruptured disk in his lower back. Despite his attempt to return to a major league mound this season, his last start was on July 3. He finished with a 4.04 ERA over 71 1/3 innings.

To patch up the rotation while Detwiler, Haren and Strasburg missed time, the Nationals turned to a combination of veteran Ross Ohlendorf, and rookies Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark and Nate Karns. Ohlendorf, signed to a minor league deal in the offseason, wasn’t near the top of the Nationals’ starting depth chart to start the season but injuries forced him into action. He joined the Nationals in the summer as a long reliever, and as a starter did a good job. He finished with a 3.28 ERA over 16 games, seven of them starts.

Karns was the first of the Nationals’ starting depth to reach the majors this season. He showed flashes of ability but struggled; a 7.50 ERA over three starts before returning to Class AA Harrisburg. The other rookies were far more impressive. Jordan, a power sinker-balling 24-year-old, wasn’t even a prospect to start the season but he rose quickly through the system in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. He jumped from Harrisburg to the majors and posted a 3.66 ERA over nine starts before he was shut down because of a team-mandated innings limit in mid-August.

From the moment he joined the Nationals, Roark pitched like a man possessed. He was initially in the bullpen as a long reliever, but Johnson liked his stuff so much he gave the 27-year-old, also an unheralded minor leaguer, a shot at starting. Roark didn’t look back. He made five strong starts and posted a 1.74 ERA in them, many coming during the Nationals late-season surge. Overall, the power sinker baller finished with a 1.51 ERA and a 7-1 record over 53 2/3 innings.

OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

The biggest question surrounding the Nationals rotation next season will be the back end of the rotation. Initial reports on Detwiler’s rehab and return to the mound in the instructional league were positive. But can the left-hander, who is under team control through the 2015 season, regain his form in 2014?

Also, who will round out the starting rotation? The past two offseasons, the Nationals have filled it with one-year deals for pricey starters such as Haren or Jackson. General Manager Mike Rizzo said that the development of the young arms, such as Roark and Jordan, altered some of the team’s thinking. He suggested recently that he didn’t feel a need to sign a free agent pitcher and could see the Nationals using Roark or Jordan in the rotation next season.

Both Roark and Jordan will be in the big league camp next spring competing for the job. But it wouldn’t be all together a bad idea if Rizzo did sign a veteran to another one-year deal. That way Roark and Jordan can develop further in Class AAA Syracuse and can be stashed there as insurance and depth for injuries that can never be predicted. The Nationals’ lack of depth was exposed some this season when potential fill-ins Chris Young and Christian Garcia struggled with injuries in the minors. Or, perhaps, Rizzo could use the rebuilt stock of minor league prospects to trade for a starter with several years of control.

Another big question is the potential for an extension for Zimmermann. In his second season of arbitration, the 27-year-old earned $5.35 million in 2013 — and is due for a sizable raise in 2014. The Nationals and Zimmermann’s camp have talked about the possibility of a long-term deal in the past, but tabled it during the season.

Zimmermann doesn’t sound willing to take a hometown discount — as he has every right to — and appears even willing to test free agency after the 2015 season if he needed to. Rizzo said recently he would be open to a deal if the numbers made sense, but given the rising price of starting pitching, Zimmermann won’t come cheap. A deal that buys out his final two arbitration years and maybe a year or two of his first free agent years could make sense. The Nationals did it with Gonzalez after acquiring him, but he didn’t have Tommy John surgery like Zimmermann did. And, another factor to consider: The Nationals are bullish on the young arms in the system and the major league arrival time.

Next season, Strasburg could help the Nationals by making the needed next step in his development. He hasn’t reached the milestone of 200 innings. He hasn’t fully overcome the minor adversity that surrounds him. More attention is cast upon him because of who he is, so every minor mishap is magnified. But given his ability and ceiling, he could do more for the Nationals next season.

In some ways, Gonzalez was good in 2013 but still regressed some. His led the starters in walk rate: 3.5 BB/9. If he is more consistent and aggressive with his strong stuff, perhaps he can improve. Strasburg was second behind Gonzalez in walk rate: 2.8 BB/9, another potential area of improvement.

POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

A lot hinges on the Nationals’ eventual offseason strategy. They could stick with either Roark or Jordan in the rotation next season, made a trade or sign a free agent pitcher. If they do pursue a free agent pitcher, keep in mind the number of years. Could they sign a veteran starter that would help them compete for a World Series title in 2014 but convince them to sign for, say, one year or a short-term deal? A long-term deal for a starter could block younger starters from reaching the majors.

Haren knows he is very likely not an option for the Nationals next season, so here are some names of free agents that, in some ways, stand out: Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza, Josh Johnson, Scott Kazmir, Hiroki Kuroda, Jake Westbrook, Ervin Santana and Paul Maholm. James Shields, Wandy Rodriguez and Ubaldo Jimenez have options for next season.

PROSPECT TO WATCH

Because Jordan and Roark are addressed above, we will examine a different sort of prospect here. Lucas Giolito, 19, is the Nationals’ top pitching prospect and his return from Tommy John surgery has impressed team officials, but he is still years away from reaching the majors. So the prospect we suggest keeping an eye on is one that could be pitching in the big leagues far sooner.

Just behind Giolito on the list of best Nationals pitching prospects is A.J. Cole, a hard-throwing right-hander who will turn 22 in January. The Nationals coveted Cole so much they signed him well above slot after drafting him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft and then traded for him again in the Michael Morse deal last winter after shipping him away to Oakland for Gio Gonzalez.

Cole throws a fastball in the mid-90s and a breaking ball, and has worked hard on improving his change-up. Like any young pitcher, once he masters his command with all of his pitches, especially his offspeed ones, he could rise faster through the system. He began 2013 at Class A Potomac and posted strong rate stats — 9.4 K/9 and 4.43 K/BB ratios — over a 97 1/3 innings despite a 4.25 ERA. He was promoted to Class AA Harrisburg and thrived. There, he punched up a 2.18 ERA with a 9.7 K/9 and 4.90 K/BB rate over 45 1/3 innings. He also represented the Nationals in the Futures Game in New York.

The Nationals are bullish on the next wave of young arms in their system, and should Cole continue his progression he might begin the 2014 season at Harrisburg and soon be at Class AAA Syracuse, with the majors only one more step away.

Coming Monday: The relievers.

Also on Nationals Journal

Nationals positional review, Part 3: Catchers