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Putting a Spin on the Nats' Rotation

Staff Was Battered Last Year, but Has Potential

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 15 -- They used 11 starting pitchers last year, and only one managed to win even six games. They reported to spring training with no one on the roster who has more than 21 major league saves. They went after a left-handed starter in free agency, couldn't afford him, and are left hoping a 22-year-old who has never pitched above Class AA ball might somehow make a precocious improvement.

The first official gathering of the Washington Nationals -- which took place Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training -- was full of the kind of buoyant talk one would expect when baseball hasn't been in a city for more than three decades. But for the Nationals, it was also full of the harsh realities of their situation. The pitching staff that assembled at Space Coast Stadium has been beat up, battered and generally dismissed as the weakest in the National League East, talk that won't go away unless someone proves otherwise.

Nationals Manager Frank Robinson meets the media on the first day that pitchers, catchers reported to work. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"We have to be realistic," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "This team lost 95 games last year. But I think the good thing going in is we do have five pitchers, if healthy, that have the potential of being 12- to 20-game winners, that have the potential of throwing 180 to 200 innings. All five of them.

"Can we get it out of them? I don't know."

There, on day one, is one of the most significant questions surrounding the Nationals' 6 1/2-week stay in Florida. Last year, when the team was the Montreal Expos, it ranked 12th or worse in the 16-team National League in earned run average (4.33), saves (31) and both walks and home runs allowed. The reasons were simple: inexperience, lack of depth, and -- perhaps more than anything -- health. Eight Expos pitchers made nine trips to the disabled list last season, exposing a minor league system thinner than Lara Flynn Boyle on the Atkins diet.

"It's inevitable that something's going to happen with injuries," said right-hander John Patterson. "But last year, when all that happened, we didn't have a lot of depth. We really didn't -- and it hurt."

This season, at least on paper, the entire Nationals pitching staff arrives healthy, and therefore automatically looks deeper. Tony Armas Jr., who two years ago underwent major surgery on his right shoulder, threw well in winter ball in his native Venezuela. Fellow righty Zach Day said he added 10 pounds to gain durability, and is over both a broken finger and shoulder tendinitis. Righty Tomo Ohka returned from a gruesome broken arm injury suffered last June, albeit with a plate in his right arm. Patterson missed 10 weeks with a groin strain, but said Tuesday he felt "rejuvenated."

"This staff is better, right now, than when we started last season, and it'll be better than when we ended the season," Manager Frank Robinson said. "What happened with this ballclub last year, and we have to be aware of this year, is we can't really afford serious injuries to front-line people -- your Tony Armases, your Zach Days and people like that. We're not that deep. We can't afford that."

Perhaps the one player Robinson need not worry about in that regard is what amounts to the staff ace, Livan Hernandez. The hero of the 1997 postseason for the Florida Marlins, no NL pitcher has hurled more innings or thrown more complete games in each of the last two years. It is a role Hernandez -- 11-15 with a 3.60 ERA in 255 innings last season -- relishes.

"He's a guy who not only loves to go long distance, but he does it very successfully," catcher Brian Schneider said. "It's not like he goes out there and struggles. In my book, he becomes a better pitcher in those late innings."

The rotation also figures to include, in some order, Armas, Ohka and free agent signee Esteban Loaiza -- a group that combined to go 15-18 with a 4.95 ERA in just 58 starts last season. Sure, Armas has long had exceptional potential, and before his shoulder injury in 2003, seemed to be on the verge of breaking out. Yes, Ohka was consistent in 2002, when he went 13-8 with a 3.18 ERA. And the Nationals signed Loaiza to a one-year, $2.9 million deal -- despite his struggles with the New York Yankees in 2004 -- because of what he did the year before, when he won 21 games for the Chicago White Sox and was the runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award.

But that's a lot of ifs, ands and buts -- all before addressing the fifth starter or the bullpen. And oh, by the way -- not one of those players is left-handed.

That's one of the main reasons Bowden pursued free agent lefty Odalis Perez in the offseason, a chase that ended with Perez re-signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Thus, the leaders for the final spot in the rotation are right-handed as well: Jon Rauch (3-0, 1.54 ERA in nine starts), a 6-foot-11 behemoth acquired in a trade with the White Sox last year; Patterson (4-7, 5.03 ERA in 19 starts), who was inconsistent after a spring-training deal with Arizona; and Day (5-10, 3.93 in 19 starts), whose run support per nine innings was the lowest in the majors.

To a man, each said Tuesday he intends to win a spot in the rotation.

"I'm not coming in here to say, 'Oh, well, if I don't make the rotation, I'll make the bullpen,' " Patterson said. "I'm coming in here to make the rotation."

Chad Cordero, 22, returns to the closer's role that he took over last June, converting 14 of 18 save chances. Luis Ayala could, someday, be an outstanding right-handed set-up man or closer himself, a guy who, according to Schneider, "has so much action, so much movement on the ball, it's scary." Veterans Antonio Osuna and lefty Joey Eischen will stabilize the pen, with righty T.J. Tucker likely the first long-relief option, or, as he said, "the junk man."

But if this group is really going to come together, someone unexpected will have to emerge. And there's a chance -- a chance -- that could be Michael Hinckley, 22, a lean left-hander from the plains of Oklahoma who was the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2004. Hinckley, sagely, noted Monday in the clubhouse, "There's not a lot of lefties around here."

"We're going to give him a serious look," Bowden said. "I'm open-minded. It's a long shot. But long shots make it."

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