Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Drew Storen has allowed one hit --a cheap one -- in three appearances this spring.
Stephen Strasburg is the best pitcher in camp, though that won't ensure him a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Drew Storen may be right behind Strasburg in ability, and he very well could wind up in Washington on April 5.
Other than Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond may be the best all-around position player on the roster, and he's determined to force a difficult decision at the end of the month.
The rotation remains a huge question mark, with few guys in the running for three open spots distinguishing themselves as worthy big-league starters.
Let's begin with that final point, because it is the foremost dilemma on the Nationals' hands at this moment. Sure, it's nice to know Strasburg, Storen and Desmond all look major-league ready, but what good does that do when you still can't come up with a reliable starting five?
Scott Olsen and Matt Chico each had opportunities to step up and state their cases today against the Astros. Neither exactly made a definitive statement, particularly Chico, who got shelled in his relief appearance and sounded lost about it afterward.
"The offspeed just wasn't there today, so I had to rely on my fastball," he said. "And up here, you just can't throw fastballs. That's the only thing I could throw for a strike today."
The end result: six runs and eight hits allowed in one-plus inning, by far the biggest factor in the Nationals' 8-7 loss at Osceola County Stadium.
It was a discouraging outing for Chico, who looked sharp his previous time out against the Mets, giving a glimmer of hope that he's returned all the way from Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, as any pitcher who has gone through that procedure will tell you, it takes a long time to get your "feel" for pitching back. Your arm may feel great, but it can take another year after that before you feel like anything resembling your former self.
"He just didn't have it today," manager Jim Riggleman said in the understatement of the afternoon.
Just like that, we may need to reconsider whether Chico is a legitimate candidate for a rotation spot. Perhaps the guy still needs some more time in the minors to get his "feel" back.
The decision would be made easier if only someone other than Strasburg was pitching like he wanted the job. Garrett Mock has made some strides and at this point probably looks like a safe bet to make it. But Craig Stammen and J.D. Martin have had nondescript springs to date, and Scott Olsen is still trying to work his way back to top form.
Olsen took some more steps in that direction today, allowing one run and four hits in three innings. He opened the afternoon allowing a triple and a double (both somewhat wind-aided) and then allowed three more flyballs before escaping the first inning. He got better as the day went on, though, and tossed a pair of scoreless innings to end what he deemed a positive outing.
"Very encouraged," he said. "My arm's still attached. Nothing broke today. So we're still pretty happy. The results were good today. But most importantly, I feel good right now."
What about Olsen's velocity? Well, it was up a slight tick today. One scout in attendance had his fastball clocked between 86 mph and 88 mph. That's better than it was last time, but it's still not good enough. For Olsen, who had shoulder surgery last summer, to be successful, he needs to be at 90 mph or higher.
He's got perhaps four more starts this spring to make the jump before it counts for real.
"I feel as though I'll be 100 percent, ready to go whatever day they decide to give me the ball," he said. "That was the plan last year with the training staff. They haven't led me wrong yet. So everything they've been saying would happen, has happened. We're still right on schedule with what we agreed on last July. Everything health-wise is right where we need to be."
If other members of the great rotation derby were distinguishing themselves this spring, perhaps the Nats couldn't afford to be patient with Olsen and wait for the velocity (and the results) to come. But with few other viable options at the moment, they have to just assume it'll happen and tentatively pencil him in as the No. 3 starter behind John Lannan and Jason Marquis.
And the rest of the rotation? At this point, Mock and Livan Hernandez probably get the nod, with either Stammen or veteran Miguel Batista serving as a long man in the bullpen and possible spot starter.
Then again, if the decision comes down to keeping one of those two as long relievers or keeping Storen as a set-up man ... well, it's going to be tough to pass on the rookie. In three appearances, he's yet to allow a run. The only hit off him was as cheap as they get: a misplayed pop-up to first base in the wind that Chris Duncan couldn't handle. And Storen's secondary pitches, especially his slider, have been dynamite, leading to a pair of strikeouts today.
At this point, Storen hasn't looked overwhelmed by any aspect of professional baseball, even if he won't admit that.
"Every time I've been out there has been a challenge," he insisted. "I've just been lucky enough to get good results. But there's no easy day when you're facing those kind of hitters."
Desmond hasn't come close to looking overwhelmed, either. He had a couple more hits today (a double and an RBI single) and has looked very comfortable wherever Riggleman has played him in the field: shortstop, right field, center field.
"Ian has just been outstanding, both offensively and defensively, running the bases, providing energy," Riggleman said. "He's doing a great job."
Enough to wrest away the starting shortstop job from Cristian Guzman? It's not out of the question.
Put it this way: If the Nationals actually took their 25 best players north at the end of the month, Ian Desmond will be there.
So would Drew Storen.
And so would Stephen Strasburg.
Which we all know isn't going to happen. Teams don't take their best 25 players north. They take the ones who best suit their needs in April. The challenge now facing Desmond and Storen -- and, to a lesser extent, Strasburg -- is to show the Nats they would best-suit the club's needs from Day One.