The Nationals have a mostly set roster, save for a handful of positions: second base, some bench roles, the fifth starter spot and a few bullpen spots. The pitching positions will feature some of the fiercest competitions pitting incumbents (Ross Detwiler) against rising young arms (Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan). The ripple effects of the fifth starter’s position will help determine the composition of the bullpen.
While the back three in the bullpen appear set — Rafael Soriano as closer, and Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen as set-up men — the rest of the bullpen is less so. Leading candidates for other spots include Jerry Blevins and Xavier Cedeno, both left-handers, and Craig Stammen. Other options for the bullpen also include Ross Ohlendorf, Ryan Mattheus and, perhaps a long-shot, Sammy Solis.
Four of the pitchers competing for spots were at NatsFest last week and each offered their thoughts on having to earn a spot on the team, an experience not unfamiliar to many of them.
>>> Detwiler made four starts in the instructional league after returning from a herniated disk in his lower back. His fastball hit between 94 and 96 miles per hour. His back, he insists, is no longer an issue. He feels good.
“After instructs, I proved my health to everybody and to myself,” he said. “And then had a normal offseason. Starting throwing a little sooner this year with all the time off. I feel like I’m ready to go already and am itching to get back out there.”
Detwiler will get an early start; he is slated to head to Viera on Monday, ahead of his fellow pitchers who report on Feb. 13, so that he can work out more and escape the cold Missouri winter. Because of his disappointing and injured season — 4.04 ERA over only 13 starts — Detwiler wants to pitch as soon as possible. He learned from last season when not push his body, which is exactly what he did when the oblique and back problems first arose.
The next biggest hurdle to cross and prove that he is fully healthy? “Throw a full season,” he said. The most he has thrown in a season is 164 1/3 innings in 27 starts in 2013.
Should Detwiler, 27, fail to make the starting rotation out of spring training, he could be moved to the bullpen and provide insurance for the rotation. But Detwiler isn’t thinking that far ahead. He wants to prove that he can win the fifth starter’s spot — again.
“I’ve done it every single year,” he said. “I’ve never had a spot given to me. It’s been up for grabs and I’ve won it in the past and I think I can do it again.”
>>> Roark could pose the biggest threat to Detwiler’s hopes to become the fifth starter. While some scouts may like Jordan more, former manager Davey Johnson stumped heavily for Roark. The 27-year-old right-hander had a stellar and surprising run as a starter last season after coming up as a long reliever. He went 3-1 with a 1.74 ERA in five starts, and posted an overall record of 7-1 and 1.51 ERA in 53 2/3 innings.
Roark could end up as a long reliever or a fifth starter this season, but he hasn’t prepared any differently this offseason. He moved his family recently to Arizona so that he could train. Pitching coach Steve McCatty told Roark that he should come ready to contend for the fifth starter’s spot. Roark would prefer to start, but said he is open to anything.
“I know it’s going to be a competition but I’m gonna think of it as just any other day,” Roark said. “I can’t over-think it too much because that’s when you get into your own head. … I would love to be the fifth starter but if I could make the team out of spring training that would be great, to help the team out in any way I can. I just want to make the team and win the World Series.”
>>> Ohlendorf could also likely be a long reliever who can start in a pinch, which he did surprisingly well last season. The Nationals tendered Ohlendorf a contract after he posted a 3.28 ERA over seven starts and nine relief appearances last season. The Nationals avoided arbitration with him with a $1.25 million guaranteed deal, which could reach up to $3 million more in performance bonuses. Contracts don’t guarantee roles, but Ohlendorf’s pay suggests the Nationals want him to be in the majors while Roark, for example, has remaining minor league options.
Ohlendorf, 31, said he is more optimistic about this offseason compared to last winter when he came to the Nationals on a minor league deal.
“I feel like there’s a good chance of me being on the team whereas last year I felt like I was going to be in Triple-A this time,” he said. “I just feel a lot better and I feel better about last year pitching-wise.”
The key to Ohlendorf’s season, he believes, was his health; it was the best he had felt in three years or so. He said he continues to feel strong this offseason. His fastball averaged 92.3 mph, according to Fangraphs.com, his highest velocity since 2008. When he hit 97 mph on the radar gun one day, teammates took notice.
“I’ve thrown that hard in that past, it just had been a while,” he said. “Velocity helped, my command and I learned how to pitch up in the zone effectively.”
>>> Mattheus, 30, may have perhaps the most to prove this spring along with Detwiler. The right-handed reliever broke his throwing hard after punching a locker following a rough outing. Even when he returned, he wasn’t the same. The hard-throwing sinker-baller who had posted a 2.84 ERA in the previous two seasons combined now struggled immensely. In the nine games after his return, he posted a 9.45 ERA, and then was demoted to Class AAA Syracuse. He returned again but was still shaky. He finished with a 6.37 ERA over 35 1/3 innings. Few people could have been happier for the season to end.
“I took some time to evaluate it and now it’s gone,” he said. “I’ve learned from it. I’ve moved on and it’s kind of like a fresh start. I have to compete for a job and that’s fine. I’ve had to compete for a job every year that I’ve been here. I don’t know it any other way. I’m ready for spring training and ready to compete.”
Mattheus believes his biggest problem was his own head. He did struggle with command and tried a mechanical fix but, after reflecting this offseason, he thinks he was pushing himself to prove to everyone that he let down that he was back.
“When I came back I kind of wanted to fix it all at once,” he said. “My first outing I was like, ‘I gotta let them know I’m back and gotta make up it.’ I was trying to make up for something I did instead of just doing my job.”
Mattheus could earn his old spot in the bullpen again but that will hinge on a strong spring performance.
“(The bullpen roles are) not for me to figure out,” he said. “We kinda look at it. It’s hard not to. It’s a very talented group of guys and, if I fit in there somewhere, great. I’m going to compete my butt off to win my job. We’ve had good bullpens with me in it in the past. Hopefully we can put together a strong squad together down there. Hopefully I compete my way on it.”