Go on and laugh at the Nats' starting pitchers now while you still have time. Get it out of your system. The surprise of camp so far is the growing realization that the mocked Washington rotation will be better than it was last year. In fact, the case for a better rotation in '07 is so obvious after a real analysis that it's actually closer to a promise than a prediction.

Just as surprising, it probably won't matter which four pitchers Manager Manny Acta picks to pitch behind ace John Patterson. It could be Tim Redding, Shawn Hill, Beltran Perez and Matt Chico, my early line. The combination could be Jerome Williams, Joel Hanrahan, Jesus Colome and Jason Simontacchi. By midseason, when tryouts will probably still be under way at RFK Stadium, the rotation could be Chris Michalak, Brandon Claussen, Billy Traber and Josh Hall. Unless Eduardo Valdez, Colby Lewis, Anantacio Martinez and Mike Hinckley -- all here, all with an outside chance -- edge 'em out.

"What about Emiliano Fruto? I caught him the other day. Nasty stuff," Robert Fick said.

"He's a relief pitcher," I said.

"I bet they switch him to a starter pretty soon," Fick said.

The point, a serious one to the Nats, even if it's slapstick to everybody else, is that it hardly matters whom Washington sends to the mound in the first inning this year. As long as their arms are healthy enough to lift their morning coffee and they remember to cover first base, they'll be better than Tony Armas, Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio were last year.

The Nationals' big secret is that their starting pitching was so atrocious last season, so historically disastrous, so apocalyptically jinxed, that almost anybody could do better. So the Nats went out and got just that -- almost anybody. For any student of stats, it's easy to imagine that almost any rotation -- just so long as it's manned by healthy pitchers who have had some success in the majors or been efficient in the high minors -- would be an improvement on last summer's abomination.

Sure, that's the granddaddy of backhanded compliments. But if Patterson pitches as well as he did in '05, it may be tough for the Nats to lose enough games to get the No. 1 overall draft pick that General Manager Jim Bowden constantly, and only half-facetiously, claims to covet. He has himself to blame. He collected the three dozen mystery arms here. What if a few of them actually work?

"We've talked about that a lot," said Acta, when the ERAs of last year's Flawed Four are pointed out -- 5.03, 5.34, 5.57 and 5.98. "People ask me, 'How can you replace those guys?' I don't want to say anything bad about them because some have accomplished a lot in their careers. But I know we can replace those guys' numbers from last year."

Last season, the four gentlemen cited above started 104 games with an ERA of 5.43. How incredibly bad is that? Excluding Washington pitchers, only two men in the entire NL who qualified for the ERA title had a mark above 4.98. Include the work of Zach Day, Ryan Drese, Jason Bergmann and Traber with those four and Washington got 128 starts from men with a combined 5.51 ERA. That's ghoulish. By June, Frank Robinson called the bullpen during the national anthem just to make sure the phone was working. All year, the Nats had one complete game. That's not the record, but I'm guessing it's close.

"People talk about our rotation being a problem this year," catcher Brian Schneider said. "That was our big problem last year. There are some pretty darn good arms here. I see them every day."

Stat geeks have a concept called "value over replacement player." The perennially overachieving Oakland Athletics, for example, live by it. Any big leaguer should have better stats than this theoretical "replacement player," whose performance is, by definition, the kind you could expect to get "at minimal cost." In reality, the replacement player is a vet you pick up from the winter league or a Rule 5 castoff or a "Did Not Play" hurler who's coming back from arm surgery or a polished minor league journeyman or a promising kid who's blocked in the minors with a strong franchise.

The Nats, with a ludicrous 36 pitchers in camp, have now become the first franchise to corner the market on Real Life Replacement Pitchers. The unique twist is that the '06 starters had no value at all above a replacement pitcher. In fact, they had a distinctly negative value compared with a collection of warm bodies you could round up on baseball's street corner.

So say hello to the warm bodies. Take Redding. He went 10-14 with a 3.68 ERA for Houston in '03 and thought: "With any run support, I'd have won 15 games. I was young, so I thought I had the world by the tail." He didn't. Arm trouble. Fuss with the front office. Traded. Back to the minors. Good morning, Charlotte. There, he went 12-10 with a 3.40 ERA last season, including five complete games. Then he headed to Venezuela for winter ball, desperate to catch anybody's eye.

"What are you doing down there?" Bowden said when he reached Redding by phone in South America. "You just pitched 190 innings. You proved your arm's healthy."

"I don't exactly have people knocking down my door with offers," Redding recalled.

"Get home," Bowden said. "You've got a job."

Bowden has assembled two dozen Reddings. All have plenty of smudges on their résumé. But who cares? Bring 'em on -- in waves. They can't all stink. That's the theory anyway. So, for the next few months, and perhaps all season, the Nats won't really have a rotation. Think of it as a carousel. The Nats plan to carry 12 pitchers on Opening Day, with another dozen on speed dial. Anybody who gets sent to the minors and sulks needs psychiatric help. With two consecutive quality starts at Class AA Harrisburg and no felony arrests, you could be No. 3 man on the staff by next Thursday. The Nats may summon so many pitchers from the hinterlands that we'll have to change the name of our airport to Reagan Nationals.

At the moment, handicapping the rotation is impossible. So let's try. Acta loved managing Redding in the minors; he seems a lock. Hill's sinker has Schneider and Fick raving about its "kick." Perez showed poise in September at RFK and had the kind of 3.11 ERA at Harrisburg that usually translates into an NL ERA a whole lot better than the 5.43 of last year's Flawed Four. As for Chico, the bulldog left-hander who was the main chip in the Hernandez trade, Acta says: "I'd like to take him back with me. He's 24 [in June]. That's not rushing him." Of course a rookie such as Chico out of Class AA has to give Acta evidence.

"People talk about how many games we'll lose," Ryan Zimmerman said. "They have blinders on. They don't see what's here."

Perhaps more important, few realize the importance of what isn't here anymore. The starting pitchers who've departed were subtracted by choice. Soon, the core of the Nats' new season will come into view. Will the starting pitchers who've been added, and they are truly the meek of the baseball earth, prove they're worthy of the rotation they have suddenly inherited?