Nationals Seek Stability in Rotation
Saturday, February 14, 2009
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 13 -- Two months ago, John Lannan bought a house here. He'd talked about it with his dad, and they agreed: It was a good time to buy. It felt grown-up, established. He bought a dog, a 47-inch television and a wraparound couch. He revamped a sunroom into a third bedroom, and decided that fellow Washington Nationals pitcher Collin Balester could take residence in one of the spare bedrooms, so long as he tossed in some cash now and then.
"Me and Bally just went shopping," Lannan said. "Spent like $180. Got some fruit. Some cold cuts."
Another Washington pitcher, Matt Chico, lives down the road. Chico bought a then-unfinished house in July 2007, because hey, it made sense to live just a few traffic lights from his team's spring training home. At that time, Chico -- as Lannan does now -- had a lock on a starting rotation spot. Even a year ago, Chico had the right to envision the long arc of a promising career. Well, at least he did until the night when his left elbow popped, and the date a few months later when orthopedist James Andrews noticed a full elbow tear.
Six days after undergoing a surgery that rebooted his career, Chico moved into his new house.
In 2008, at least, unpredictability put a giant chokehold on the entire Washington pitching staff. As spring training concluded, the Nationals projected a starting rotation of Odalis Pérez, Tim Redding, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann and Chico, none of whom now figure into this year's start-of-spring projections. Inconsistency cost Redding a roster spot and shuttled Bergmann down the depth chart. Injuries have Hill and Chico in rebuilding mode. Pérez has rejoined the team on a minor league deal, but must overtake the current crop to earn a roster spot.
Pitching, by tradition, is baseball's most precarious vocation. Some talents develop, others do not; some arms withstand the strain, others crack. As Washington pitchers and catchers prepare to report today, the team's present projected rotation underscores the way in which careers can contort, often laughing at logic. One calendar year ago, Scott Olsen was with Florida. Daniel Cabrera was with Baltimore. Balester just hoped for a decent year with the Class AAA Columbus Clippers. Jordan Zimmermann had never pitched a professional game beyond the Class A New York-Penn League. Lannan had pitched in only six big league games. He still lived with his parents in Long Island.
This was the first year he could afford to move out.
"If you think about it -- it's so unpredictable," Lannan said. "These projections, how often are they ever right? Because all these things can happen."
The success of Washington's season is largely predicated on the rotation's ability to grow some roots. Nationals President Stan Kasten called it "the big unknown."
Said Bergmann: "This year's [initial] rotation has no members of last year's rotation. It takes a strong person to understand you could be making a lot of money or struggling to have a job at all."
For at least a couple weeks last season, Lannan and Chico pitched in the Washington rotation at the same time. The Nationals promoted Lannan from Class AAA on April 5, just days into the season, and his performance thereafter never allowed the team to send him down. Technically a rookie, Lannan pitched like the team's ace. Through it all, he kept a list of his goals on a little piece of folded paper in his wallet. He wanted 10 wins; he got nine. He wanted an ERA under 3.50; he settled for a 3.91. Still, his 182 innings tied for the team lead. He ranked eighth in the National League in quality starts.
Despite his growth, Lannan never dared to let himself feel entrenched. Not when he still had so much to prove, he said. Not with so many nearby reminders of pitching's fragility.