Less than two weeks from opening day, the fight for the Nationals’ fifth starter spot has reached a pivotal stage. Tanner Roark made an impressive statement yesterday on a back field, in front of a gaggle of minor leaguers and team officials. Taylor Jordan will have his chance to answer tonight in Space Coast Stadium, on live television. And Chris Young, to hear the Nationals tell it, isn’t out of the race yet, either.
You can make a case for each pitcher, some more compelling than others. You can also poke holes in all those cases.
Roark, to start, had more success in the majors last year than both Young, who lost his entire season to injury, and Jordan, who was adequate in nine starts. Roark was extraordinary, pitching to a 1.51 ERA. He excelled with pinpoint control, reading swings and, perhaps his best attribute in the eyes of coaches, a no-nonsense, give-me-the-ball determination. He knows how to pitch, but his pure stuff may be undersold. He throws 92-94 mph with his fastball, and he’s got a big league curveball and a change-up that works.
While Roark broke out last year, his prior track record and his perceived value in the game can’t be ignored. Any team in baseball could have picked up Roark in the Rule 5 draft heading into the 2013 season, and none bit. He credits an improved mental outlook for his rapid ascent, which is viable. And at 27, he’s at an age when he could still be entering his peak. But there is a chance Roark’s 2013 was a small-sample success.
Jordan is the young right-hander with a better profile around the game, and stuff scouts view as more electric. At 25, he has a higher ceiling. His offspeed stuff has improved since last year, but pitching coach Steve McCatty still wants him to lean on his turbo sinker for quick outs. “I’m trying to get him pitching more with his fastball and understand how good it is,” McCatty said.
It’s a testament to his pure stuff that he had as much such success last year as he did. Jordan is less polished than Roark. He came straight to the majors from Class AA and, because he missed a year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, he has thrown only 90 1/3 minor league innings above Class Low-A Hagerstown. Jordan probably did himself no favors in the Nationals’ eyes when, after his last start, he partly blamed his difficulties on the home umpire not giving him low strikes.
Even though has the most experience, he’s also the dark horse. But both Manager Matt Williams and McCatty insist he remains in the mix. Young, 34, missed almost all of last season and discovered he needed surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome. He suspects the issue also led to the myriad shoulder issues that derailed his career.
Young, who’s in camp on a minor league deal, feels more like himself from five years ago. The Nationals agreed. His velocity last spring was 83-84 mph. This year, it’s nudged up to 86-87, which McCatty said can make a significant difference.
“He’s a proven major league pitcher,” McCatty said. “The ball’s coming out better, freer and easier. I see more of what he has been in the past.”
Young’s detriments are clear. While he has experience, little of it has come in recent seasons. Young pitched 115 big league innings in 2012, but the last time he threw more than 80 in a season was 2008. The repaired thoracic outlet syndrome could solve those problems, but that’s a significant gamble.
The competition falls to those three because the Nationals sent Ross Detwiler to the bullpen. Detwiler will pitch one inning in relief tonight, his first appearance as a full-time reliever. McCatty expects there to be some anger in his performance, and he is fine with that.
“Det, at this time for what this club needs right now, I think it’s a big deal,” McCatty said. “Can I tell him something that will make feel better? Probably not. I know Det. He’s a very competitive guy. He has his period to be upset. When it comes time to play, you put that aside.”
McCatty stressed that Detwiler had not been demoted or punished. He feels like the Nationals have four solid options who could all fill the fifth spot. But only Detwiler can add a unique dimension – a power left-hander capable of getting one out or, say, seven – to the Nationals’ bullpen.
“I told him, at this point, it isn’t that they all out-pitched you,” McCatty said. “I just thought – or we all sat down and talked – that he can make us exceptionally strong out of the bullpen. I think we have a really good bullpen. But I think him being down there with what he has, the ability to sink the ball, he can still throw breaking balls, he makes us a better bullpen. He makes us a better team.
“Not that that fifth spot is not important in the rotation. But I think that we have quality guys that can do that. I just think with Det being a left-hander, and the sink, the competitiveness, just going out there for one, two innings and letting it eat, he can make the bullpen and make the club better.”
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