Washington Nationals offseason preview: starting rotation

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann is expected to log more innings in 2012. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Don’t look now, but the Washington Nationals are becoming relevant. After almost a full decade as an NL East doormat, the Nats finished just below .500 in 2011. I know they’re just an average team (actually, a little bit below average if you look at Pythagorean W-L) but after years of enduring the likes of Garrett Mock and Jason Bergmann, Nats fans have to be pleased with the team’s ascension from “punchline” to “competitive.” The homegrown arms, which will make up a large portion of Washington’s maturing rotation, have the opportunity to step up now that expensive inning-eaters Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis are leaving via free agency.

John Lannan (LHP)

2011 Salary: $2.75MM
2012 Salary: $4-$5MM through arbitration
2011 Stats: 184 innings over 33 starts, 5 strikeouts per 9 IP, 3.7 walks per 9 IP, with a 3.70 ERA and a 4.28 FIP. In total, worth 1.3 Wins Above Replacement.

Lannan is a typical back-end starter with a below-average fastball and a slew of average secondary pitches. Entering his second year of arbitration, his salary is creeping ever closer to his marginal revenue product. He’s a candidate to be traded, especially if the organization is confident in the readiness of some of their pitching prospects.

Jordan Zimmermann (RHP)

2011 Salary: $415M
2012 Salary: $1.5-$2MM through arbitration
2011 Stats: 161 innings over 26 starts, 7 strikeouts per 9 IP, 1.7 walks per 9 IP, 3.18 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 3.4 WAR

Zimmermann qualified for Super-Two status, so he gets an arbitration raise a year early. He was capped at 160 innings last year after coming off of Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann sports a comfortably above-average fastball in the 92-94 mph range that flashes plus and a hard, mid-80s slider that is a true swing-and-miss pitch. Together, those two pitches represent about 85 percent of the pitches Zimmermann threw in 2011. He’s also got a decent curveball and change-up that’s not very good. Curiously, Zimmermann didn’t have the extreme splits you’d expect from someone with that lousy a change-up. As he learns how to finagle outs against left-handed hitters (working in backdoor curveballs for strikes early in counts, burying backfoot sliders, stuff like that) he can survive without the change and be a true #2 starter.

Ross Detwiler (LHP)

2011 Salary: $300-$400M
2012 Salary: $400M
2011 Stats: Only 66 innings in 10 starts and 5 relief appearances, 5.6 strikeouts per 9 IP, 2.73 walks per 9IP, .272 BA against on balls in play, 3.00 ERA, 4.21 FIP

It’s difficult to make any judgments about Detwiler’s numbers from last year. The sample is frighteningly small and a third of his innings came in September against diluted competition. He’s likely primed for some regression. It’s your standard fastball, change-up, curveball repertoire, with the latter of those being his weakest offering. It lacks depth. He saw an uptick in his velocity last year, even after he moved from the bullpen to the rotation. They should keep him in the rotation for now, but if some current farmhands should arise as better options down the road, it’d be cool to see if Detwiler could step into the bullpen and squeeze some more velo out of the fastball. A 6’-5” lefty with a 95 mph fastball and above-average change-up coming out of the bullpen? Sign me up. For now, he’s a back-end guy on the cheap.

Chien-Ming Wang (RHP)

2011 Salary: $1MM
2012 Salary: $4MM
2011 Stats: 66 innings in 11 starts, a paltry 3.6 strikeouts per 9 IP, 2 walks per 9 IP, 4.04 ERA, 4.57 FIP

I’m not sure what Wang did last season to deserve a $3 million raise. He’s not going to pitch with above-average velocity on the sinker anymore. He was in the mid-80s with it as he was rehabbing in the minors, and it climbed to the 88-91 mph range once he arrived in D.C. The Nats scrapped Wang’s splitter and have him working with a curveball, as well as a change and slider. None of his secondary stuff is noteworthy. Now, a veteran innings-eater is a nice thing to have while you wait for some homegrown talent to mature in the minors, but Wang might not even be that. His delivery puts a ton of stress on the shoulder and, in my opinion, Wang is an injury waiting to happen. The best-case scenario for Washington is that Wang puts together a good first month or two, one of their prospects forces his way into the majors and they trade Wang to a naïve contender.

Stephen Strasburg

2011 Salary: $4,375MM
2012 Salary: $3MM
2011 Stats: 24 innings in 5 starts, 1.50 ERA, 1.28 FIP, 1.1 WAR

You may have heard of this guy. I didn’t list the full gamut of Strasburg’s stat line since it seems frivolous to try to draw conclusions about his first 25 major league innings coming off Tommy John. He sports three plus-pitches. The command might take a little while to come back (it usually does post-surgery) so if he starts the year with an abnormally high walk rate, don’t be alarmed. If you extrapolate what he did in just 25 innings out to the 160 inning limit he’ll be on next year, you’ve got a nearly 7 WAR player. That’d be enough for Cy Young consideration. Your mom will know who he is by July.

Other candidates

The Nationals are supposedly kicking the tires on Roy Oswalt. That doesn’t really make a ton of sense to me unless they think Oswalt will still be a viable contributor in 2013 or 2014, which is when I expect the Nationals to really start competing. Oswalt’s stature prevents him from pitching with natural downhill plane, which would be fine if he still had plus velocity to blow past hitters. He doesn’t have that anymore. Look for him near the top of your HRs allowed leaderboard next October if his back doesn’t get to him first.

Internally, the Nats have some other options. I’ll get into most of them in the prospects section later this month. Tom Gorzelanny will either be traded or non-tendered. Yunesky Maya and Tom Milone are up and down guys at best. Brad Peacock tore up the Eastern League in 2011 and has a great arm, but I think he belongs in the bullpen.

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