In spring training, much time was spent discussing — and writing — about the Nationals‘ No. 6. starter. Deservedly so, as it appeared to be a potential weakness. Back then, the Nationals’ starting depth after their top five starters looked something like this: Chris Young, Ross Ohlendorf, Christian Garcia, Ryan Perry, Yunesky Maya and Tanner Roark.
Fast forward seven months and the list of players who actually helped in the big leagues is much different. The silver lining of all the injuries to the Nationals’ starting rotation this season has been the discovery and development of some of those younger pitchers, even ones that initially weren’t high on the depth chart. A neck injury claimed Young’s season and various ailments plagued Garcia. Perry struggled at Class AAA Syracuse. Maya was ineffective. So Roark, Ohlendorf, Nate Karns and Taylor Jordan propped up the rotation during injuries.
“I knew of Roark,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “I liked his stuff. He didn’t have a good spring. He was all over the place. Jordan, I had no idea who he was or where he was. Karns, I knew a little bit about him.”
But of those pitchers, the development of the younger arms — Roark and Jordan, and some progress by Karns — have the largest implications. The Nationals have discovered that two of the younger arms in their system are capable of handling the major leagues. While their starting pitching depth was weak before the season, it should be much stronger next season because of Roark, Jordan and Karns, and coupled with the ongoing maturation of the wave of other young pitchers behind them in the system such as A.J. Cole and Sammy Solis. It will change how the Nationals approach free agency and the trade market this winter.
“We always knew we had depth,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It just depends how far we have to go down to get the depth. As we saw, we weren’t afraid to go down to Double A to get guys to the big leagues. We felt we had depth bullpen-wise and that’s been shown by [Fernando] Abad, [Ian] Krol and [Xavier] Cedeño, and [Erik] Davis. That group of guys. And the rotation, who could ask for more production out of your depth starters that we’ve had. Us probably more than anyone in the big leagues.”
Added Johnson: “We’ve got some guys – Cole, Solis – some guys I really like. Great arms. Pitching comes fast. They’re all going to be pitching in Double A or up. When you get them to that level, I think you can come from Double A to the big leagues just as easy as coming from Triple A.”
For the past two seasons, the Nationals have spent on free agents such as Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren with one-year deals to fill the back of the rotation with the idea that their young crop of pitchers would be close to arriving in the big leagues by 2014. Injuries this season forced the Nationals to turn to Jordan and Roark and they showed they can pitch in the majors. Jordan, 24, posted a 3.66 ERA in nine major league starts and Roark, 26, has been dominant with a 1.08 ERA over 41 2/3 innings. Both will be invited to big league camp next season to compete for a starting rotation spot.
“We feel that we are going to be very deep next season as we are this season,” Rizzo said. Roark is “going to be in the competition for the rotation spots, we feel, with a lot of different very good options we’re going to have next year.”
Roark has been just as surprising as Jordan, who wasn’t much of a prospect before the season and until his meteoric rise through the system. Roark was a Class AA pitcher when the Nationals acquired him in 2010, along with Ryan Tatusko, from the Texas Ranger for Cristian Guzman. He had a 6-17 record with a 4.39 ERA at Class AAA Syracuse last season. He began the season slowly at Syracuse and everything fell into place after one horrid outing. The Nationals saw Roark as a potential fringe major league starter, but perhaps not this season.
“We had really good scouting reports on him, even though it was a lower level trade at the time and we had really good reports on him from guys who knew him really well,” Rizzo said. “From what we saw this year and the growth that we saw from last year to this year, we thought that there was still another progression left in him. What we did know is that he had command of four pitches and that he had the poise and guts to not be intimidated to pitch in the big leagues.”
Given the Nationals’ window to push for a World Series with the majority of their roster together, they may choose to still round out next year’s rotation with a free agent starting pitcher, perhaps a proven veteran for a one-year deal. A team can never have enough depth, so that could allow the younger arm like Roark and Jordan to continue to refine their craft at Class AAA Syracuse.
The Nationals could also consider acquiring another starter through a trade in a package deal, as they did with Gio Gonzalez before the 2012 season. They have replenished the system’s depth after losing prospects in the Gonzalez trade, and the younger arms have two more years of development in the minors. (“We certainly now again have the depth to go out and acquire a player via the trade market,” Rizzo said.) Or the Nationals could turn to Jordan or Roark, among others, to fill the rotation spot next season.
“The guys are closer now,” Rizzo said. “We see what we refer to as the new wave and that wave is about major league ready in ’14, whereas last year we had a little bit of a gap because of the Gio trade where you lost some depth with the Tommy Milones and [Brad] Peacocks in the trade.”
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