Early Tuesday morning, when he reported for his usual workout, Ross Detwiler still did not know the Nationals had traded for Doug Fister the night before. Detwiler’s trainer back home in Missouri happens to be a Detroit Tigers fan, and so he knew. And that is how the person the deal may affect most found out: His personal trainer told him.
Later Tuesday, the ramifications of Fister’s addition for Detwiler became clear. General Manager Mike Rizzo was asked if the fifth rotation spot belonged to Detwiler, who missed the last half of 2013 with a herniated disk. Rizzo instead ticked off a list of names. Detwiler, part of the Nationals’ opening day rotation the past two years, would have to fight for his spot in spring training.
“I didn’t know there was going to be an open competition for the last spot,” Detwiler said. “Oh, well. I’ve gone into every year since I got here like that. So why change that now?”
Reached this afternoon over the phone, Detwiler seemed disappointed but accepting of the challenge. He feels good about his health, having thrown his fastball between 94 and 96 miles per hour this fall rehabbing in the instructional league. He noted he has always performed well during spring training and said he would focus on his work and opposing hitters — not on his status — once spring arrives.
“I’m not looking at gaining or losing a spot, really,” Detwiler said. “If I throw well, it’s going to be there. If I [stink], then it won’t.”
Over the last three seasons, Detwiler has been a consistent, sometimes excellent starter when healthy. He pitched to a 3.62 ERA in 50 starts while also making 11 appearances a reliever. In Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS, Detwiler delivered one of the most clutch pitching performances in the team’s brief history, six three-hit innings in which he allowed the Cardinals no earned runs.
And still, Rizzo mentioned Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf, Nate Karns and Sammy Solis as pitchers who would enter spring on equal footing as Detwiler. Rizzo has also broached the idea of Detwiler filling the Nationals’ need for a lefty in the bullpen should he not make the rotation.
“When I go out there, if that’s me starting or coming out of the bullpen, it’s not up to me,” Detwiler said. “If it’s up to me, I’m going to be a starter. But those aren’t my decisions.”
If any question about Detwiler’s efficacy as a starter persists, it concerns his endurance. He has recorded just one out past the seventh inning in his career. A heavy reliance on his sinker can make him vulnerable deeper in games: batters facing him for the third time in a game have hit .314/.366/.493 over the course of his career.
Detwiler has also proven he can be dominant out of the bullpen. In 32 1/3 career relief innings, he has a 1.11 ERA while holding opponents to a .173 average. But his excellence (over a small sample) as a reliever should not be held against him as he tries to win a rotation spot. A former No. 6 overall pick, Detwiler is still just 27 and at times has shown top-of-the-rotation stuff. If he’s healthy, making him a reliever now may be pulling the plug too soon.
And, after a trying year, he is healthy. Detwiler said he has felt “100 percent” since a stint in the instructional league in September. In Detwiler’s final rehab start in Viera, Fla., he threw between 80 and 90 pitches over six innings, his fastball zipping at 94-96 mph and touching 97.
“The biggest thing for me down there was over-throwing, really,” Detwiler said. “I was so excited to be out there.”
For all but one month in 2013, Detwiler’s back ailed him. On May 10, late in a win over the Cubs, he felt something like a cramp in the left side of his back. His ERA then, after seven starts, stood at 2.53.
The soreness stayed with him, and he rehabbed between starts. Five days later, Detwiler overcompensated with his mechanics and strained an oblique in the right side of his lower back. He landed on the disabled list and would not return until June 13. Even when he rejoined the rotation, he never felt right.
“The oblique was overcompensating for whatever else wasn’t going right,” Detwiler said. “Everything gave out at once.”
He made five more starts. His weakened back led to wayward mechanics, which led to leaving pitches up, which led to an erosion of confidence. He punched up a 6.31 ERA after coming off the disabled list and made his last start of the season July 3.
Detwiler’s rehab finally concluded with his appearance in the instructional league, typically a place for low-level minor leaguers. “I don’t think I’ll have to deal with that,” Detwiler said. “I haven’t felt it at all.”
Before he split for the winter, Detwiler met with Nationals strength coaches John Philbin and Matt Eiden. They tweaked his offseason weightlifting regimen to focus on stabilizing his back, tailored specifically for his mechanics.
“Instead of doing a generic workout that all healthy people do, something is pointed at exactly what I’ve had wrong,” Detwiler said. “With all the back stabilization, I think I’m going to be stronger than I was in the past.”
Detwiler will be healthy when he arrives in Viera for spring training, and when he has been healthy for the past three years he has been a legitimate, middle-of-the-rotation major league starter. The rest is not certain, even if it seemed it was before Tuesday morning.