Nats' future rotation offers multiple choices, elusive answers

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, July 9, 2010; D05

The Washington Nationals' pitching rotation of the future is about to arrive. It's coming in a hurry and in waves, one crashing on top of the other, over the next two to five weeks. In all, the Nats have 11 pitchers -- five of them recovering from injury almost simultaneously -- fighting for the same five starting spots.

"Never seen anything like it," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Good problem to have."

Yet no one in the Nats organization is sure how it will play out, what careers will blossom and which might be stunted or even end up all but forgotten back in Class AAA.

Only one name in the current rotation is safe: Stephen Strasburg. And only one pitcher currently rehabbing in the minors is certain of a starting spot as soon as he's physically ready: Jordan Zimmermann. Just 11 months after elbow surgery, his fastball touched 94 mph for Potomac on July 3. In his second rehab start Thursday, he allowed one hit, no runs, no walks and struck out five. He'll probably be called up Aug. 1 and put in the Nats' rotation in "24-25 days" said one Nats decision-maker with a grin.

The buzz that Strasburg's arrival gave to fans, Zimmermann's prospective return provides to Nats insiders. If you make it back completely from an elbow ligament replacement, you're sometimes better than when you left. It's the only surgery that could end your career or add a foot to your fastball. Four NL all-star pitchers have their "Tommy John" scars.

Assuming Zimmermann doesn't push too hard too fast, the Nats think they'll soon again have the pitcher who struck out 92 in 91 innings as a rookie last season. By 2011, will he be even better?

So, in a cruel Darwinian game of musical chairs, that will leave just three rotation spots for eight -- count 'em, eight -- candidates. Where will the rest of the current rotation of Craig Stammen, Luis Atilano, J.D. Martin and even the team's first-half savior Liván Hernández fit into future plans?

Lefty Ross Detwiler, who threw 93 mph this week in his fifth minor league start, is ready to return as soon as he's sharp enough or someone else pitches himself out of a job.

"If we got back the Detwiler we had last September [1.90 ERA] -- the guy who pitched at 92, touched 94, was tough on both lefties and righties -- then he'd probably be our third starter or a really, really strong No. 4," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "But he has to trust that his [repaired] hip is healed, use the lower half of his body more and let it fly."

Every Nat has just such questions to answer, fears to confront, tests to pass. Scott Olsen, perhaps anxious not to be forgotten, sent word through his agent that his left shoulder feels good enough to let him pitch in the majors this month. On the Nats' jammed-up calendar, that would jump him ahead of $15 million free agent Jason Marquis (elbow chips), who was an all-star at this time last year, and two-time Cy Young Award runner-up Chien-Ming Wang. Both are expected to be MLB-ready by mid-August, latest.

Wang's progress has been so complex that a recent "pop" in his repaired shoulder is still being evaluated. Was it a scared-him-to-death setback or, more likely, a sign of progress that scar tissue may have torn, actually speeding up his recovery. Almost every day brings such data to Rizzo. Some of it is franchise-changing, such as the news that Zimmermann lit the gun to 94 mph, a fraction above his average speed as a rookie.

If Zimmermann is fully recovered, "then he's a No. 2 starter -- which to me is saying a lot, like Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in Arizona. Or else he'll become one bad [bleep] of a third starter," Rizzo said.

"Roy Oswalt is a good comparable for body type and mentality. . . . Jordan led all of baseball in percentage of strikes last year. He went after everybody. As he matures, when he's ahead in the count, he'll learn to get less of the white of the plate. You can teach that. You can't teach the attitude."

Rizzo makes no bones that he wants a power-pitching rotation, similar to the high-strikeout bullpen he has begun assembling with Clip-Store-and-Save.

"In the NL East, with the lineups you face, you gotta have some power stuff," Rizzo said. "It can't be a staff of all 86-88, maybe touch 90, sink it, got to be perfect, got to live on the black."

The Nats' backlog is so long that their two-time opening day starter, John Lannan, is down in the minors, trying to rediscover his sinker, with no guarantees about his future. He could be back in the rotation after the All-Star Game or, because these are cold-blooded, cut-to-the-chase times for Nats pitchers, he may never pitch another game in Washington.

"There are a lot of us; that's for sure," Stammen said with a crooked grin. "Someday, all of our names might be in major league rotations."

But not all in Washington.

If the Nats have a problem, it's that, aside from Strasburg, Zimmermann and, perhaps, Detwiler, everybody else may be interchangeable.

"It's actually kind of a compliment to call somebody 'an average major league pitcher,' " Riggleman said.

The Nats certainly have plenty who aspire to that designation. Give or take a little, it may describe Stammen, Martin, Lannan, Olsen and Atilano. And that's why the brawl among them will be so hard to evaluate accurately.

However, one Nats pitcher isn't average at all, though his career stats (162-155, 4.39 ERA) say he is. Hernández (6-4, 3.12 ERA) has allowed two runs or less in 12 starts. He could have 10 wins. He has never missed a start in 14 seasons. As enthusiasm mounts for the young, don't be too quick to let this cheerful old insurance policy lapse.

Since opening day, the Nats have talked about being much better after the all-star break, when young Zimmermann and Detwiler could join Strasburg in a rotation that would bode well for 2011. They didn't know then they would be mixing that trio with past 200-inning starters such as Hernández, Marquis, Olsen and maybe Wang or Lannan.

"All of us, we've got our stories of how we got to the big leagues," Stammen said. "It takes a lot to get here. But it takes even more to stay."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company