By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009
VIERA, Fla., March 28 -- First thing in the morning, pitching coach Randy St. Claire had a decision to share, so he approached one of the young pitchers who had just landed a big league job and said, "Jordan, c'mon over here."
The pair walked to the Space Coast Stadium dugout.
To understand why the Washington Nationals feel comfortable trusting two of their five rotation starts to a pair of rookies, it is instructive to begin here, where Jordan Zimmermann received the news of his professional life and responded as if he'd just heard a weather report. As always, he showed little emotion. There was a handshake and a half-smile. Then, the two talked logistics: Zimmermann, 22, had won the team's fifth starter spot. Shairon Martis, who turns 22 on Monday, had earned the fourth spot. Together, this spring, they had combined for 33 1/3 innings, 8 runs, 6 walks and 31 strikeouts. Both, on the mound, looked unflappable. They were the lone people in Nationals camp unimpressed with their own springs.
At times this year, St. Claire told Zimmermann, you'll face bumps. That's what happens to 22-year-olds. "But don't change what you're doing," St. Claire said. "Don't change anything."
For Washington's coaching staff and front office, Saturday's determination of the 2009 pitching rotation validated a gradual, sometimes trying effort to upgrade the organization's farm system -- and its future. Whereas in previous years the Nationals have used veteran free agents and casting-call long shots to fill their rotation, this year's staff will showcase five who are 27 or younger. Several could remain a part of it for a long time. Following John Lannan, Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera, Martis will start the fourth game of the season, on April 10, just 11 days after his 22nd birthday. Zimmermann will start the year in the minors, while Washington begins with a four-man rotation, and debut on April 19. Collin Balester, the other rotation candidate, was optioned to Class AAA Syracuse.
Acting general manager Mike Rizzo called Martis and Zimmermann "the buzz of spring training," and said, "We're really excited about the inventory of players we have that we think are the next wave of the major league team."
"That alone makes it exciting," Manager Manny Acta said, "but what makes it more exciting is that they are young guys under 25 years old from our system that are not guys that we had to run a tryout camp for like we did the last two years. Whether these guys are going to do it or not, I mean, we're going to see. But I'm excited to have five guys that are 27 or younger, throwing them out there every five days. I think I can live with that, and if these guys come together -- hopefully being at least as realistic as I don't like to be -- and three of them are the real deal, then you've got yourself a good rotation for a long time here."
For a short period last summer, Martis's and Zimmermann's paths to the big leagues ran parallel. As teammates with Class AA Harrisburg, they lived with separate host families on the same street; often, Zimmermann would drive Martis to the ballpark.
In a way, though, the pitchers' paths ran on different levels. Zimmermann, armed with a 94 mph fastball and a curveball that swerves like an amusement park ride, had the gloss of a top prospect. He was stolen out of a tiny college, Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He was homegrown, drafted in the second round of 2007. At every level, his dominant numbers required no interpretation.
Martis lacked a comparable profile. Acquired in an unheralded July 2006 trade with San Francisco for Mike Stanton, Martis didn't throw as hard and appeared in few top prospect rankings. Even when Washington called him up to the major leagues last September, a spotty four-start trial did little -- at least publicly -- to peg him as a valued commodity.
"He doesn't knock your eyes out with the radar gun," Rizzo said. "He's a sinker-slider pitcher. He's a command guy. And he's a poise guy beyond his years. And he's a 22-year-old pitcher that doesn't throw 95 mph. He gets you out by commanding four quadrants of the plate with three pitches, and those aren't the guys who really are the sexy type of prospect. So I think that's the reason why he was under the radar."
Or at least he was, until this spring. Martis elected to skip the World Baseball Classic, sacrificing a spot with the Netherlands team, to test his chances at landing a job. Even a month ago, Martis thought his chances were "probably half and half," he said.
Zimmermann dominated in all but one of his starts, again casting a shadow, but Martis's numbers broke through the cover. He pitched 19 innings, allowing three runs. Asked why the team picked Martis, not Zimmermann, as the fourth starter, Acta brandished a copy of the spring statistics.
"I think he has gotten the less publicity and the less hoopla, but I think Shairon Martis has pitched better than anybody in camp," Acta said. "I think the numbers are there. He has had a tremendous camp. He laid low in the weeds, and while everybody was talking about a few guys, he just continued to pound the strike zone and put zeros on the board. He earned it."
When Zimmermann returned to the clubhouse Saturday morning after his chat with St. Claire, Martis still did not know of the decision. Only minutes later did Martis unplug the iPod earbuds and hear from the media what happened. He responded much as Zimmermann did.
"Oh, they didn't tell me," Martis said, matter of factly.
He was told the specifics.
"Oh, I've been working for that," he said. "So I'm happy with the decision."