With real pitchers, Washington Nationals inch closer to being a real team

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; D01


As you walk through the Nationals clubhouse in spring training, you see an unexpected and novel sight -- real pitchers.

Some, like Scott Olsen, Chien-Ming Wang, Matt Chico and Jordan Zimmermann, are coming back from injuries. Some, like Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, are just rookies. Some, like Jason Marquis and Matt Capps, are free agents who have never worn a Washington uniform.

Some, like Liván Hernández, Miguel Batista and Eddie Guardado, have a ton of mileage on their tires. And several, like Garrett Mock, Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin, Shairon Martis and Collin Balester, look like fourth or fifth starters, at best. Only one, John Lannan, is a young, established starter approaching his prime.

But they all have one thing in common. They aren't Daniel Cabrera or Logan Kensing, Micah Bowie or Mike Bacsik, Levale Speigner or Jerome Williams. They aren't symbols of desperation and defeat. They are all pitchers with a proven past or obvious potential. And so, unlike the parade of open-audition disasters who have thrown the ball for the Nats over the last four seasons, they are all, to varying degrees, symbols of hope and a better future.

Take a good look -- the days when the Nats are last in the National League in ERA (5.00 last year) are about to end. The hallmark of normal teams is that, in March, you see waves of pitchers who have "big league" written on them. You don't know which kids will blossom, which hurlers rehabbing after an elbow or shoulder surgery will make it all the way back or which veterans will put together one last fine season. But, out of many, you know it's reasonable to assume an actual pitching staff can be assembled.

Finally, that is where the Nationals are now. They have things they know, truths that they hold to be self-evident -- that Lannan and Marquis will pitch about 200 innings each with an ERA near 4.00. That means stability, if not excellence.

They know that, if they can do no better, former World Series MVP "Livo" Hernández (46-47 the last four years) can sling his slop for 190 innings and seldom embarrass his team. They know, off last year's performance, that Stammen, Mock, Martin and Martis are not overmatched by big league hitters. As a group, they are likely to improve. The Nats also know that when Olsen, Wang, Chico and Zimmermann were healthy in the past, they got people out. Zimmermann, before elbow surgery, looked like a top-of-the-rotation stud in the making and Wang, before two shoulder scars, lit up Broadway for the Yankees with back-to-back 19-win years.

Finally, the Nats are certain that, perhaps by midseason, Strasburg will show up -- never to return to the minors again -- with raw stuff that is comparable to any power pitcher you care to name; monikers like Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Justin Verlander and Dwight Gooden would be perfectly appropriate. Hold off on Nolan Ryan, though that's what Iván Rodríguez said last week.

For a team that has seldom known anything for certain, for a franchise that has lived in the dismal half-light of 96 defeats a year since '05 and bottom of the barrel payrolls, the presence of so many quality arms, so many proven histories, is a delightful shock to the system. Did anybody ever say that baseball is pitching?

During the offseason, the Nats considered pursuing free agent Doug Davis, 34, the sort of stable but aging pitcher who has no high-ceiling potential, but has reeled off six straight seasons that averaged 10-11 with a 4.30 ERA in nearly 200 innings a year. To bag him might've cost $11 million for two years. In any of the last four seasons, such a modest southpaw would have been seen as a virtual savior. Now, the Nats don't want him.

"I love Doug Davis to death. He's one of my buddies," slugger Adam Dunn said. "But the team feels that we already have better [pitchers] in-house. And I think we have better, too.

"Just to sign Davis -- so we could say that we did -- doesn't make sense to me. I'm not knocking Doug. He takes the ball, always puts up those solid numbers. But we've got better right here. They just have to mature and take the next step up."

Due to all the "inventory" General Manager Mike Rizzo has amassed, the Nats may be the only team in baseball that has a 15-man rotation.

That's right, 15. If opening day were this week, the Nats might start with a rotation of Lannan (3.88 ERA), Marquis (15-13 last year), innings-eater Hernández, the talented but air-headed Mock and the determined sinkerballer Stammen.

But only the first two names on that list are certain. If Olsen, 30-33 in three years in the Marlins rotation, shows that his arm is strong after shoulder surgery, Manager Jim Riggleman says he's "a lock" to be in the rotation. Olsen vows he will be ready.

The surprise of the spring so far has been the compact lefty Chico, who was the ace-by-default of the '07 staff as a rookie, posting a 4.63 ERA in 31 starts. "Chico's number should have been '911.' We had to dial him all season," Rizzo chuckled. "He's a bulldog," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman says.

"My arm strength is back to where it was in '06 when I was with Arizona," said Chico, who had elbow surgery. "The Nationals have never seen me with my old stuff. It's there now."

In a sense, the Nats have been blessed by the peculiar sequence in which several of their pitchers will return to health. A hip injury to lefty Ross Detwiler, the No. 6 overall draft pick in '07 who had the inside track on a rotation spot, has left the door open for others. He'll be back before midseason. But by then will Olsen, Chico or both have gobbled up the spots for southpaws?

The most nerve-racking rehab of the Nats season will be that of Wang, who won 19 games back-to-back for the Yanks in 2006-'07. He's rehabbing in Arizona and plans to be ready in May. Despite two surgeries on his pitching shoulder, doctors claim he has as much as an 80 percent chance of a full recovery. Be skeptical. But if Wang is healthy, the Nats could have one of the steals of the season -- and '11, too, since he remains under team control. A fit Wang could be a team-changer, a power sinkerballer who could join Strasburg, Marquis, Lannan and Zimmermann in a rotation that would almost be an '11 fantasy compared to the '09 Nats who only had one pitcher with more than five wins.

Of course, the arrival of Strasburg in the rotation -- and once he's in it, he will never leave it as long as he can lift his arm -- will be one of the most significant watersheds in team history. The most likely date is midseason, which would "push back his clock" so the Nats could retain control of him through the '16 season.

Just three years ago, the Nats' pitching was the joke of baseball. In '07, the Nats had a dozen pitchers who started at least six games, including some of the least-talented pitchers ever seen in big league uniforms. Now, expectations are entirely different. The Nats have choices, so many they hardly know which to pick.

"This is the best group we've had," Riggleman said. "We'll see if it becomes the best team."

That process will start by winnowing a horde of starting pitching candidates, at least 10 of them serious choices, down to perhaps six or seven by this time next season. Which of the injured will return to form? Which rookies will become standouts? Out of so many, how can they all fail?

Real pitchers make a real team. Nothing else suffices. Don't look now, but that's the transformation the Nats may finally have begun.

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