For Nationals, picking fifth starter is far from final answer

Washington Nationals pitcher Scott Olsen had his best outing of the spring on Friday against Boston.
Washington Nationals pitcher Scott Olsen had his best outing of the spring on Friday against Boston. (Steven Senne/associated Press)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010

FORT MYERS, FLA. -- On Thursday morning, sitting in the visitor's dugout in Port St. Lucie, Scott Olsen admitted he felt "in the dark" about his place on the Washington Nationals. He wished he had a clear idea if he would begin the year as the Nationals' fifth starter or as part of Class AAA Syracuse. The vagueness had started to wear on him.

Olsen's dominance Friday against the Boston Red Sox did nothing to change his uncertainty. Olsen had his best start this spring, but the Nationals will not decide his fate until Saturday afternoon. But Olsen's attitude toward his situation had changed.

"I've been waiting a couple days," Olsen said. "Twenty-four hours ain't going to kill me."

Olsen should make peace now with the ambiguity, because job security is not one of the perks of the position he is trying to land. By Saturday afternoon, the Nationals will have chosen either Garrett Mock or Olsen as their fifth starter. In finalizing their roster for Monday's opening day, it is one of their biggest decisions. In shaping their team for this season, it is likely to soon become moot.

Under normal circumstances, Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman would prefer cycling through the same five starters all season long. His fifth starter opening would be the fifth start at year's end, too. But the Nationals, with Stephen Strasburg ready to ride buses in the Eastern League and Chien-Mien Wang throwing rehab bullpen sessions, are not operating under normal circumstances.

"Ideally, you'd like to name your five guys and go," Riggleman said. "But that's not the nature of it. It would be unrealistic to think we're going to start out the season with five starters and two or three months later still have the same five."

The Nationals' rotation will almost certainly look much different in September than it will Monday. Every season, every team experiences turnover in its starting rotation over the course of 162 games. Several factors will make Washington's pitching staff particularly fluid.

At some point around the start of June, Strasburg is going to become a major leaguer for good. Someone is going to have to make room for him. In the meantime, Nationals starters will have to keep from looking over their shoulders.

"I'm sure as a player, you think about it," Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "But basically, you control your own destiny."

By the time Strasburg steals a spot this summer, Wang and Ross Detwiler may have already reinforced the staff. Wang won 19 games in 2006 and 2007. Detwiler, the sixth pick in the 2007 draft, showed promise last season.

But neither is a sure thing. Wang has not pitched since last summer and is recovering from shoulder surgery. In 42 innings last season, he compiled a 9.64 ERA. Detwiler is rehabbing from the hip surgery he underwent at the start of spring, and he has only pitched past the sixth inning once in 14 career starts.

Wang and Detwiler will add two more options to an already overflowing stable of choices. The competition to start for the Nationals did not end when the Nationals boarded a team plane bound for Washington. The multitude of pitchers who vied for a role in the starting rotation remain within the system, and they all still want to prove themselves deserving.

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