By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 1:12 AM
When you stand by the fence during bullpen sessions or the cage for full-speed batting practice in Viera, Fla., you hear the Nationals' talent evaluators, men whose reputations rank far higher in the sport than most of the players on their 93-loss team, and you wonder if they have lost their minds.
Then you watch what they're seeing and wonder if you are losing yours.
General Manager Mike Rizzo, his assistants Bob Boone and Davey Johnson, Manager Jim Riggleman, and coaches Steve McCatty, Spin Williams and Pat Corrales have seen it all. They know a Stephen Strasburg from a three-legged donkey. They know they are supposed to have such a lame starting rotation - a bunch of nondescript fourth-and-fifth starters - that many experts think they will probably lose 90 games again this year.
But, so far, their eyes are telling them something different. Something better. How much better, they don't know. How long it will last is also a mystery. But they can't wait to find out. And it all started Monday.
Beginning now, February's mandatory baseball optimism turns gradually into March realism. By April, dreams must translate into performance. That transition can happen quickly. As the Nats played their first exhibition of spring, beating the Mets 9-3, the team's coaching staff and executives were cautiously optimistic about their suspect starting rotation.
Actually, that's not quite right. All the gentlemen mentioned above have been biting their tongues for two weeks so they wouldn't sound foolishly cheerful. Why don't they talk much about it? Where's the praise, the enthusiasm? Shhhhh. Last year, the Nats learned a painful lesson. They crowed in February about their improved pitching. And they got it, too, allowing 132 fewer runs than in '09, the second-best upgrade in baseball.
But that success didn't show up until they felt mortified by a 0-11 start to spring training, including a 10.25 team ERA at one point. The turnaround didn't arrive until their top free agent grab, Jason Marquis, was a total April bust then needed surgery. When Ross Detwiler wasn't requiring hip surgery, then John Lannan was being shipped back to the minors or Scott Olsen was pitching his way out of town. Those memories sting. The Nats surely didn't expect afterthought Livan Hernandez to be the staff savior.
So, now they try to be circumspect. They cackle among themselves then hedge their bets in public. Probably smart. "They all look good throwing on the side or in live batting practice," McCatty said. "But everything changes after they play that song [the National Anthem]. The hitters will tell you."
Nobody's hurt - yet. Jordan Zimmermann's sharp slider is apparently back, along with the fastball and curve that returned last September. So, he's a top prospect once more. Those with established track records, like Marquis, Lannan and Hernandez, are throwing as they did last August and September - like men who can work 200 innings with a combined ERA around 4.25. Of course, nobody holding a bat has contradicted them yet.
However, none of these presumed rotation pieces, or ex-Cub lefty Tom Gorzelanny, who starts with the inside track on the fifth rotation spot, has raised the most eyebrows here. The Nats have an entire five-man rotation, currently slated to head to Syracuse in AAA, that seems to have as much potential as the actual opening day rotation at Nationals Park. And that's what has the hearts of the Nats' brass fluttering just a bit. Not too much. Yet.
Maybe the fully recovered Detwiler isn't really ready to live up to his No. 6 overall pick of the '07 draft potential. But everyone agrees that his cross-the-body mechanics look less awkward, his injured hip shouldn't endure as much stress and all his stuff looks dramatically better. The left-hander, who was taken by Jim Bowden ahead of other high first-rounders like Giants' World Series hero Madison Bumgarner and '10 rookie standout Jason Heyward, is probably the best bet to knock somebody out of a rotation spot. "So far, he looks like the best one wearing a uniform," Boone said.
Maybe Chien-Ming Wang, picked off the shoulder-surgery scrap heap, won't regain the form that made him a 19-game winner twice for the Yankees. But the second time he threw, McCatty yelped with delight and every time the right-hander throws, the whole brain trust gathers and strokes its chin. Then says: "Too early. But he's throwin' good. We'll see."
Maybe Yunesky Maya hasn't really added several mph to his fastball so that he once again looks like what he was two years ago - the second-best pitcher in Cuba. Or, after watching up close, maybe he has.
"It was unfair of me to bring him up so fast last year after he'd gone so long without pitching in competition. That's on me," Rizzo said. "In winter ball, he had his fastball back - 90, 91, touched 94. He's a polished vet."
Standard wisdom might see Maya or Detwiler doing some polishing at AAA, then moving into the rotation if Marquis, who's in his walk year, regains his old form and can be traded for prospects by the trade deadline.
Maybe Garrett Mock, of whom Corrales says, "He has the best stuff on the staff after Strasburg," will again look like a young stud when he's in the bullpen warming up, but like a careless erratic pitcher with a 5.17 ERA when he gets on the field. And maybe Craig Stammen, who always looks pretty close to being pretty good, will never turn the corner. In five years, he could be an established decent starter or out of baseball.
"I don't know [which it will be] either," Stammen said.
But do you want to bet that none of these five guys pan out in '11 or '12?
Just two years ago, J.D. Martin and Shairon Martis were in the Nats' starting rotation. The year before that, Matt Chico was the team's best pitcher. All are healthy. All are still young. And not one of them may make either the Nats or the Syracuse rotation. "Yeah, it's crowded," Chico said.
The Nats have hopes for a somewhat better offense. Michael Morse, hunting the left field job, picked up where he left off last September, hitting a pair of two-run homers against the Mets. But everybody knows that it's the rotation - without Strasburg or any major offseason addition - that will determine whether this is a run-at-.500 season or just More of the Same.
"We look at the glass half-full," Riggleman said. "We think we have a lot of guys who could pitch, and do a good job, in the middle of anybody's rotation. But we have to see it happen."
The surprise so far in this spring training is that the Nats, who hoped to find five such pitchers - oh, please, just five - now have to choose from 10.