Too much starting pitching should not be a problem for the Nationals


With Jordan Zimmerman, above, and Stephen Strasburg at the front of the rotation, the Nationals may improve on their 80-81 record from last year. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist February 19, 2012

For now, let’s not focus on problems the Washington Nationals could encounter with their starting rotation. They have plenty of time to determine where all the pieces fit.

When a franchise that historically has had too few effective starters for the first time seems to have too many, that’s mostly a good thing. On the eve of spring training, Washington is different because of its rotation. General Manager Mike Rizzo built a strong foundation on a potentially formidable group, which is groundbreaking here.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

There are durability questions. And no one knows whether everyone will step forward together. But the Nationals’ rotation should be different. It should be very good. And if it is, Rizzo deserves a lot of the credit.

Rizzo and Manager Davey Johnson have no doubts. The Nationals, who begin workouts Monday afternoon in Viera, Fla., will “run our big four against anybody in the league,” Rizzo told me last week before traveling to Florida.

Johnson has playoff aspirations. “I’m still a little too superstitious to say the ‘P’ word,” Rizzo said. “But I understand what Davey is thinking.”

It’s not inside baseball stuff. It’s common sense for anyone who has watched Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson at their best.

With those four, the Nationals expect quality starts. They envision a lot of great ones, too. It’s reasonable for Washington to believe that, in a high percentage of their outings, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez and Jackson will provide a stable bridge to one of baseball’s best bullpens.

Even the “B” group of John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler and Tom Gorzelanny provide better options for a fifth starter and rotation depth than Washington has ever known. The Nationals simply aren’t used to having so much talent in such an important area.

“Hopefully,” Rizzo said, “those days where we have 14 guys start for us over the season are behind us.”

Washington will limit Strasburg to 160 innings in his first full season in the majors following his Tommy John surgery in 2010.

Still, the Nationals can’t temper fan excitement about Strasburg, 23, who has already achieved stardom despite his uncooperative pitching elbow. Now, Strasburg wants to begin a long, uninterrupted stretch of doing what drives him.

The Nationals followed the post-surgery textbook with Zimmermann, 25, who underwent the same surgery in 2009. He ranked 10th in the National League in earned-run average last season while pitching 1611 / 3 innings. Is Zimmermann ready to reach the 200-inning mark? Possibly.

Smartly, Johnson won’t push it. Zimmermann will determine how far he’ll go.

If the Nationals, whose everyday lineup hasn’t changed much from 2011, have Strasburg and Zimmermann at the front of the rotation for the majority of 2012, they have a chance to improve on last season’s 80-81 record. Gonzalez and Jackson could push the chances much higher.

Rizzo wanted the possibility of something big, so he utilized the Nationals’ farm system — the best in the game, according to Baseball America — trading prospects to the Oakland Athletics for Gonzalez, 26. In adding Gonzalez, who had ERAs of 3.23 and 3.12 the past two seasons, Rizzo assembled a playoff-caliber rotation.

Then he strengthened it with the surprising move for Jackson, 28, persuading the Lerners to spend $11 million on a fourth starter.

That was new for them. But the Lerners believe in Rizzo.

Although Jackson has had command issues (he had a 149-pitch no-hitter in 2010) throughout his career, the Nationals got someone capable. The coaching staff quickly identified a problem with Jackson’s delivery — “in the windup, he shows the ball too easily and [hitters] get too good of a look at him,” Rizzo said — that should help him.

The best teams have above-average starters-in-waiting, and that’s a role Lannan would provide in the bullpen. Of course, it probably wouldn’t be much fun for Lannan.

In a best-case scenario for Washington, Lannan would work in long relief and make few starts, if any, at least until Strasburg is shut down. Obviously, trades are a possibility, and not everyone will make the opening-day roster.

“It’s a great problem to have,” Rizzo said.

Washington’s rotation was awful when Rizzo took over the entire baseball operation in 2009. Its farm system had been ranked last just a couple of years earlier.

Team officials used to joke that the Nationals “were rated 30th because there were only 30 teams. We should have been 38th or 40th,” Rizzo said.

Through strong scouting and evaluation, Washington suddenly has a window for success. Starting pitching, as always, is the key.

“We’re gonna put it on the players this year,” Rizzo said. “We’ve done our part. We’ve spent the money. We’ve developed the players.

“We put in the work. Now, it’s time for you guys to take a little ownership of this thing. It’s time to win some games.”

The Nationals definitely have enough starters who could.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

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