Nationals Release Former Opening Day Starter Patterson

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 20 -- Faced with the prospect of sending John Patterson to the mound every five days this season with perhaps 75 percent of the stuff that made him a budding ace three years ago -- while forcing a younger, more effective pitcher to the minors -- the Washington Nationals abruptly released him instead, a bold move that would have seemed unthinkable a month ago, when Patterson was spoken of as possibly throwing the first pitch at the Nationals' new stadium on Opening Day.

Patterson, 30, was given the news in a mid-afternoon meeting in the office of General Manager Jim Bowden, and appeared shaken immediately afterward. However, when he eventually addressed the media, he sounded like someone who was not altogether shocked by the move.

"I knew it could happen," said Patterson, who has battled arm injuries while making only 15 starts and winning just twice over the past two seasons. "It's understandable. If I was in [Bowden's] position, maybe I'd have done the same thing. I knew it was a tough mountain to climb. It was [a matter of] how much time they were going to give me."

The cutoff point, apparently, was Thursday, four days after his last start -- a four-inning, six-run mess against the Baltimore Orioles -- and exactly 10 days before the opener, at which point Patterson's full $850,000 salary would have been guaranteed. By releasing him when they did, the Nationals must pay only a quarter of it, or $212,500, while Patterson is free to latch on with another team.

The Nationals, however, characterized the move as being strictly about wins and losses. A year ago, despite questions about his health, the Nationals sent Patterson to the mound seven times in April and May -- including Opening Day -- and saw him go 1-5 with a 7.47 ERA before shutting him down and sending him on a path that eventually led to a second surgery to relieve nerve pressure in his forearm.

"There was no guarantee [John's stuff] was going to come back" during the season, Manager Manny Acta said, "and meanwhile one of our younger guys was not going to get those starts. And we don't feel right now that, every five days, John was going to give us the best chance to win a ballgame."

According to Bowden, the Nationals felt Patterson's stuff was actually better last spring than this one, as his fastball has been clocked consistently in the 83-86 mph range, down from the low 90s at his best in 2005. It Patterson was truly healthy, as he claims, the Nationals believed it was possible this was as good as he would ever be again.

"Obviously, we kept hoping we could get him back to the form he was three years ago," Bowden said, "and it just never happened."

Ultimately, the Nationals found themselves unwilling to send both of their young left-handers -- Matt Chico and John Lannan -- to the minors while waiting for Patterson's velocity to come back, if it ever did. After Thursday's move, Chico, 24, was immediately penciled in for Patterson's regular turn in the rotation, Friday in Port St. Lucie, Fla., against the New York Mets, although the Nationals have not said whether he has made their rotation.

The Nationals have said only that Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann and Odalis P¿rez have locked up spots in their rotation -- and at this point P¿rez, who pitched six solid innings Thursday night, is in the slot that lines up with the coveted Opening Day start. Right-hander Shawn Hill, who is expected to be ready by mid-April, could still be the fifth starter, leaving one spot for either Chico or Lannan.

Because Patterson was out of minor league options, the Nationals could not send him down to give him more time to regain his velocity, and a discussion about allowing him to start the season on the disabled list was also ultimately shelved. When a trade market for Patterson never materialized, the Nationals felt they had little choice than to release him.

"We feel we stuck it out for three years" with Patterson, Bowden said. "We made the judgment we don't think he's coming back this year. We don't think we're going to get him back to where he was."

Patterson suggested his standing was hurt by the fact principal owner Mark Lerner witnessed his sub-par start against the Orioles on Sunday. "I pitched pretty good in two [previous] starts, but he didn't see those," Patterson said. "He saw the worst start I had. He's never seen me pitch healthy. So I would say that had something to do with it."

Nationals President Stan Kasten, however, said Lerner had "nothing to do with this decision," and has no interest in dictating player-personnel moves. Acta, meantime, said the move "had nothing to do with one particular start or outing -- it was the whole spring training."

Patterson emphasized he had no regrets or hard feelings toward the Nationals over the move, but acknowledged feeling "caught in between" the forces he said were pulling him in different directions this spring, with Acta wanting to see him retire batters and Bowden telling him to throw his fastball more.

"I want to do the right thing and I want to do what they want me to do," Patterson said. "It's just that I need to know what I'm supposed to do. And I was caught in between this spring. I wasn't sure what to do."

Patterson, suddenly unemployed, quietly collected his belongings from his locker, said a few goodbyes to former teammates and walked off, unsure whether his next move would be a long drive back home to Texas or maybe a couple of days at the beach.

Asked if he felt he would eventually gain back whatever it was he had lost on the mound, he said: "Do I believe it's there? Yeah, I do. I absolutely do. I think it just ran out of time here."

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