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John Lannan led the Nats in wins and innings but must compete for a job in 2012.
Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann may be assured of the top three spots come Opening Day, but there are now only two remaining jobs and three more-than-viable candidates in John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler.
So what do the Nationals do? There's no clear-cut solution. Wang is already signed for $4 million (plus incentives). Detwiler is out of options and thus can't be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers (something that would almost certainly never happen). And Lannan (after leading the staff in wins, starts and innings pitched) is due to earn roughly $5 million through arbitration.
When asked about this dilemma Friday night during his conference call announcing the Gonzalez trade, general manager Mike Rizzo reiterated the importance of stockpiling as much pitching depth as possible and suggested there would be a way to keep all six of his current starters.
"We know over the course of the season we're going to need more than five starting pitchers," Rizzo said. "Everybody does. We feel we're still very deep in starting pitching. We like the talent level of our starting pitching, and it's going to be great competition to see who comes out of there as our starting five."
OK, so it would appear Lannan, Wang and Detwiler will engage in a spring training battle royale, with the two two finishers earning rotation spots and the other ... landing in the bullpen? Is that fair to say?
"I think so," Rizzo replied. "I think it'd be fair to say. They're three quality pitchers, so I don't see them not being on the big-league club. But there's going to be competition, so we'll see how that all pans out during spring training. But they're three quality pitchers, and if they're not three of our best 12 when we leave camp, we're doing pretty good, because they're three quality major-league pitchers."
Good luck deciphering that quote. Rizzo managed to talk his way around this issue, offering no concrete answer. Though it's probably safe to say he considers Lannan, Wang and Detwiler all "quality, major-league pitchers."
Even if Rizzo totally committed to the bullpen scenario, it doesn't seem an especially plausible outcome. None of those three has ever worked out of the bullpen for any length of time, and none particularly profiles well as a reliever. Wang is coming back from two years of recovery after a major shoulder injury. Lannan's lot in life is as a starter; he doesn't have the dominating stuff to face a couple of batters per night, and he's no more effective against lefties than righties. And Detwiler, still only 25, did not look comfortable during his brief bullpen stint last summer.
There is one long-shot scenario worth mentioning. Lannan does have one option remaining, so he could in theory be sent to Class AAA Syracuse to open the season. But doing so would leave the Nationals paying $5 million to a minor-league pitcher who (as pointed out earlier) led the staff in wins, starts and innings this year and has done nothing himself to merit a demotion other than watching his team acquire an All-Star left-hander.
What about a trade? Well, any one of three certainly could be shopped around, though it's tough to say what any of them might bring back to the Nationals. Detwiler remains a promising young starter who possible fetch something in return. Lannan is a reliable, back-of-the-rotation lefty with two remaining years of club control. Wang had those back-to-back, 19-win seasons with the Yankees but has yet to fully re-establish himself since the injury.
In fact, Wang's injury may be the No. 1 reason against the Nationals making a trade. If Rizzo and Co. were absolutely positive he's healthy and ready to make 30 starts in 2012, they could afford to part ways with either Lannan or Detwiler. But there's really no way to know that. Which of the Nationals' six current starters is least likely to hold up over the course of an entire season? Without question, it's Wang.
So do you really want to trade Lannan or Detwiler this winter, only to realize you needed both of them come June or July?
This is indeed quite the conundrum, and it may be a while until it sorts itself out. There are still 55 days until pitchers and catchers report, then another 46 days after that before one of the Nationals' six starters takes the mound at Wrigley Field on Opening Day.
Sometime between now and then, Rizzo will have to figure out how best to finalize a five-man rotation while also keeping the best stable of reserve arms he can.