Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Scott Olsen should make the Opening Day rotation ... if he's healthy.
A unit that boasted only one guy with more than five wins (John Lannan) and one guy with more than 106 innings pitched (Lannan, again) needs to perform better if this club is going to approach respectability after two straight 100-loss seasons.
There's good reason to believe things will be better this time around. Lannan has another year of experience. The reliable Jason Marquis has been added to the mix. Scott Olsen appears to be healthy again, or close to it. Chien-Ming Wang and Stephen Strasburg should join the club sometime during the season's first half.
If all goes as the Nationals hope, this could have the makings of a legitimate rotation by midseason. But as we sit here today, five weeks until Roy Halladay and the Phillies arrive at Nationals Park, this remains the Nats' biggest question mark. Can Lannan take the next step? Will Marquis be a steadying influence on the young arms? Will Wang's shoulder hold up and allow him to recapture his form from 2006-07 with the Yankees? Can Olsen not only stay healthy but also pitch to his abilities? Will Strasburg be the real deal? And will any of the other younger starters step up and seize this opportunity?
All of these will continue to be question marks throughout the rest of spring training, but it seems appropriate at this juncture to begin a weekly look at the state of the rotation, an update of where things stand and what needs to happen between now and April 5. So let's run through all of the contenders for starting jobs, ranked from the guy most likely to be on the Opening Day roster to the guy least likely to make it to D.C. ...
1. JOHN LANNAN -- The rock of the Nats' rotation, Lannan will either start Opening Day or stand right behind Marquis as the club's No. 2 starter. No matter what position he holds, the 25-year-old lefty has already established himself as a capable major-league pitcher. Now it's time for him to take the next step, to start pitching deeper into games, to stop making that one mistake that often costs him victory and to flip-flop his 9-13 record from last season. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 100 percent.
2. JASON MARQUIS -- Like Lannan, Marquis is a lock to make the squad. It's just a matter of which title he holds: Ace or No. 2 starter. The 31-year-old righty is by no means a typical ace, and he probably shouldn't be more than a No. 3 or No. 4 starter on a good club. But on this team, he's a much-needed, reliable starter who will churn out innings and more often than not give his team a chance to win. That said, Marquis does need to be careful not to let certain innings or starts get out of hand, keep his ERA in the low-4.00s and keep his body healthy. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 100 percent.
3. LIVAN HERNANDEZ -- Unemployed a week ago, Hernandez now appears a safe bet to be in D.C. come April. He may be in camp on a minor-league contract, but it would take something out of the ordinary -- the emergence of several young starters, an injury -- for him not to earn a spot on the roster. Like Marquis, he's never going to be more than a middle- to back-of-the-rotation guy. But on this team, he'll provide a bunch of sorely needed innings until Wang and The Phenom arrive. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 75 percent.
4. SCOTT OLSEN -- Pretty much everyone of consequence in the Nats' front office really wants Olsen to make the rotation. They want his shoulder to be 100 percent healthy, and they want him to return to the form he displayed in Florida before getting traded prior to last season. But the results so far have been mixed and the lefty admits he's still getting his feel back on the mound. There's still plenty of time in camp, but the Nats need to be reasonably sure Olsen is A-OK by mid-March or else risk paying his entire $1 million salary whether he's healthy or not. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 50 percent.
5. GARRETT MOCK -- There may not be a pitcher in camp receiving more praise than Mock. (Well, aside from Strasburg, of course.) Seriously, though, I've heard several team officials rave about Mock's stuff and his potential to be a big-time starter. His performance in actual big-league games, however, has been less-than-inspiring to this point. It's time for Mock to learn how to use his superb stuff and perform like a real pitcher. If the season began today, it looks like he'd get his chance to do just that. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 40 percent.
6. CRAIG STAMMEN -- Stammen's name has come up a lot as a potential relief candidate, but to be honest, I just don't see any available spots in an already-crowded bullpen. To me, he either makes it as a starter or he opens the year starting at Syracuse. He does have the best track record among the young guys in the mix, having thrown 105 2/3 innings as a rookie and coming through with several impressive outings. But you also have to wonder if we already seen the best he's got, and whether any actual improvement is likely. If Olsen isn't healthy or Mock isn't consistent, Stammen seems like the next logical choice. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 30 percent.
7. MATT CHICO -- Like Mock, Chico has been receiving some impressive reviews from coaches and team officials this spring. Fully healthy at last following his summer 2008 Tommy John surgery, the left-hander is throwing the ball harder than he ever did pre-injury and seems confident in his ability again. He's out of options, so the Nats would risk losing him on waivers if he doesn't make the club. But the guess here is that he could slip through unclaimed because it's been so long since he was last seen on a big-league mound. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 20 percent.
8. J.D. MARTIN -- Team officials like Martin's simple approach to pitching, and they like that he held his own in 15 starts last season. But even more than Stammen, he may have already shown the best he's got. Martin also is already 27 years old, and his prospect status has just about run out. It wouldn't be impossible for him to sneak his way into the mix, but it would probably require several other developments out of his control to make it happen. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 20 percent.
9. MIGUEL BATISTA -- A couple of weeks ago, I would have guessed he'd crack the Opening Day roster as the No. 4 starter. But then the Nats signed Wang and (more importantly) Hernandez, and all of a sudden Batista is an afterthought in camp. He'll get a chance to start Friday against the Braves, but it's probably going to take a head-turning performance in that outing to keep himself in the running. You've got to think Livo will take his spot in the rotation the next time around. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 15 percent.
10. COLLIN BALESTER -- He's an incredibly visible presence around camp, what with his god-awful moustache and quirky Twitter updates. But he doesn't seem to get much attention for anything having to do with baseball. Sounds like he's headed back to Syracuse again. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 10 percent.
11. SHAIRON MARTIS -- Remember when this guy was 5-0 and the hottest sensation in the Nationals' rotation? Yeah, that was only 10 months ago. How quickly we forget. Martis is pretty much a non-factor in this camp, notably only for the excess weight he appears to have put on since we last saw him. Chance of making Opening Day rotation: 5 percent.
OTHERS -- Stephen Strasburg will absolutely be part of the Nats' 2010 rotation, but in June, not April. ... Chien-Ming Wang could be a major addition if he returns strong from his shoulder rehab program, perhaps sometime in May. ... Ross Detwiler figured to have a great shot at cracking the starting five before camp opened, but hip surgery will sideline him until May or June, and there may not be an open spot for him by then. ... Shawn Estes is a nice guy. A really nice guy who won't be pitching in Washington.