VIERA, Fla. — Because of two off-days within the first four games of the season, Manager Dusty Baker said the Nationals are considering skipping starts at the back end of the rotation. The Nationals won’t need a fifth starter until April 13. Max Scherzer, who is slated to start opening day in Atlanta on April 4, could pitch on regular rest on April 9, which is Game 4 of the season.
Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, scheduled to start April 6 and 7 respectively, could make their next turn in the rotation on April 11 and 12. A fourth starter — perhaps Tanner Roark based on the current spring schedule — could start April 10.
Baker didn’t detail many possibilities but said the Nationals discussed their options with team officials on Sunday morning. He joked that pitching coach Mike Maddux presented 52 scenarios and the staff presented the options to General Manager Mike Rizzo.
“We’re trying to decide whether to keep another pitcher or get some continuity in your pitching staff,” Baker said. “There’s something to standing on a line out there on opening day. Or how many days could Joe [Ross] be in the bullpen? Or could Roark be in the bullpen because of off-days or different things?”
The Nationals have some flexibility: Because the baseball season begins on April 3, a pitcher could be optioned to the minors and return after the required 10 days, which would be April 13, the day of the needed fifth starter. The Nationals could perhaps option down Roark or Ross and keep an extra reliever to start the season when starters can’t pitch deep in games. That might also allow the Nationals to keep a veteran on a minor league deal around longer than they had hoped.
Ross threw 152 2/3 innings last season between the minors and majors. The Nationals limited his innings in September, putting him in the bullpen because he was near his cap for the year. He was only 22 and hadn’t thrown that much in a season so the Nationals monitored his workload. This enables him to handle a larger workload in 2016, although how much is unclear.
Starting pitchers are creatures of habit and there is a benefit to keeping rotations in order and on regular rest. Baker said the option of giving his top starters extra rest versus staying on regular rest to get more starts out of his best pitchers depends on the player.
“Sometimes that sixth day comes in handy,” he said. “It depends on how he feels. I depend heavily on my pitching coach and his opinion.”