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

The Washington Nationals continue spring training with workouts for pitchers and catchers at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla. Position players reported on Wednesday.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

VIERA, FLA.

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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.


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