Rotations Are Coming Around

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By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, July 12, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO

After a night of watching teams composed entirely of all-stars, you might think it would be dispiriting to return home to the Washington area where our baseball questions for the rest of the summer are whether the Nationals can avoid 100 loses and if the Orioles can escape a 10th straight losing season. Luckily, there's something deeply wrong with me. I can't wait to find out.

The process of constructing a fine team, a project that takes several seasons, is almost as fascinating as enjoying the finished product. Progress comes in erratic bursts. Some of it may arrive quite soon. Just a month from now, the futures of both the Nationals and Orioles may seem quite different. Both teams are at transition points. And the key, in both cases, is the most important single aspect of the sport: creating a quality starting rotation.

By mid-August, the Nationals could have a surprisingly deep staff, one that is built on young Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann and Matt Chico, ages 26, 25, and 24, with resurrected veterans Jason Simontacchi and surprising Tim Redding behind them. Three top prospects, John Lannan, Collin Balester and No. 1 draft pick Ross Detwiler, also could arrive at RFK soon. By Labor Day, Nationals fans may say: "Do we really want John Patterson to come back this year? Let's find out what we're already holding."

In March, it was almost inconceivable that, by midseason, the Nationals could even fantasize about having nine potential starters who were either in the big leagues or fairly close to arriving. Yes, there are plenty of caveats. Hill is still on the disabled list, though he should make his first rehab start soon. Bergmann hasn't regained his form from the spring, when he had four quality starts in which he allowed two hits or less. Chico, in his first year higher than Class AA ball, has never shouldered such a load and may wear down in the second half. Who knows what yarn and bailing wire keep the arms of Simontacchi and Redding attached?

Lannan and Balester, both 6 feet 5, the former a southpaw, are definitely prospering in the minors. But that's not the same as facing the Mets. While it's cheerful of General Manager Jim Bowden to predict that Detwiler will be an instant No. 3 starter, maybe by September, the reality is that he still hasn't thrown his first professional pitch. As for the perplexing Patterson, he's had to go to another country (Canada) to find the combination of acupuncture, herbal medicine, hyperbaric chambers and, for all we know, witch doctors to try to get the nerves in his Palmeresque elbow back in proper communication with each other.

Still, consider the progress. In March, the Nationals' pitching was usually summed up in five words: What a bunch of bums. Now, despite losing four-fifths of their Opening Day rotation for several weeks, the Nationals have allowed fewer runs than eight teams. Could the Nationals arrive at season's end with a rotation that, in '08, might be far ahead of anybody's schedule? Maybe. But even such timid optimism comes with thorns. As the Nationals begin to have legitimate reasons for hope, they also open themselves to true disappointments.

Stopgaps like Simontacchi, Redding, Mike Bacsik and Micah Bowie can't break your heart. Nobody expects much, even though Redding suddenly is throwing so much better than he did in Florida that he seems like a different pitcher. When any of them turn in a pitching line that reads "5 1/3 -7-3-3-2-1," they get a "nice job" from Manny Acta -- with a straight face. But the other seven Washington pitchers mentioned above -- that's s-e-v-e-n -- tempt us to dream a bit. If these guys get hurt, wear out or simply lay an egg when they're brought up to the big leagues, it's going to hurt because they have (shudder) potential.

Orioles fans are encouraged at the arrival of new baseball boss Andy MacPhail, a proven smooth operator, and the Acta-like demands of new manager Dave Trembley, who won't tolerate a dead-head bench or lax players who run as though there's only 60 feet between bases. However, the real change in the Orioles is the possibility that Erik Bedard and Jeremy Guthrie are the kind of 1-2 punch at the top of a rotation that the Nationals dream of having someday.

Bedard's reaction to being left off the all-star team was memorable -- a two-hit shutout over the Rangers in which he faced the minimum 27 men, tied a team record with 15 strikeouts and raised his major league-leading strikeout total to 149. Right now, he has the best curveball in the American League and, if he doesn't get too strikeout-crazy, is only a season of decent run support away from 18-20 wins. The only way the Orioles can ever reach the playoffs while they're in the same division with the ultra-rich Red Sox and Yankees is with four overpowering starting pitchers, like the Palmer, McNally, Cuellar and Dobson teams. Bedard is one quarter of that solution. Guthrie may be the second element in such a rotation.

How the Indians let the Orioles grab the unprotected Guthrie last offseason is one of the major gaffes of the season. The right-hander hasn't been good, he's been overpowering with a 97-mph fastball and a power sinker. If Guthrie's second half approaches his 2.74 ERA and his stream of quality starts, then Baltimore may have stolen one of the building blocks of a franchise.

Next season, the Orioles will add southpaw Adam Loewen, now injured, as a promising young complement to Bedard and Guthrie. If only 6-foot-9 fireballer Daniel Cabrera were as good as his stuff. But, apparently, he's not. Eventually, you have to believe the stats -- 6-10 with a 5.04 ERA.

Midseason optimism is one of baseball's staples, in part because it is so necessary in the face of a grueling schedule. Every season, a few spunky teams perform better than expected until they reach the 100- to-110-game point in the season. Then, some of them simply melt. That is why, as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, neither the Nationals nor Orioles should aggressively try to trade veterans to contenders for marginal minor league prospects.

After all his years managing in the minors, Trembley deserves a square chance to prove what he can do with his current Orioles squad. For the Nationals, the issue is even more important. Dmitri Young (.339) and Ronnie Belliard (.299) must not be traded. Instead of dealing them, the Nationals should be trying to negotiate new contracts with both. Belliard is too versatile and Young is simply too valuable -- both as a player and a clubhouse personality -- to squander. Besides, Nationals fans have been given little enough to cheer this season without strip-mining a team that already operates with an eviscerated budget.

The dog days are coming, the time when losing teams with poor morale sometimes simply roll over. But the Nationals and Orioles have no excuse to play like canines. Remember, where there is pitching, there is hope.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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