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John Lannan has made two starts but is slated to come out of the bullpen Thursday.
Truth be told, the Nationals don't appear to have any more definitive answer to that question today than they did when the left-hander first reported to Viera. But one way or another, they're going to have to make a decision sometime in the near future.
If there is a conclusion that can be drawn on March 14, it's this: Lannan isn't going to be part of the Nationals' Opening Day rotation, not unless someone else on the staff gets hurt. Not because of anything he's done so far this spring. But because Chien-Ming Wang has been effective and healthy.
After a designed slow build-up during the early portion of camp, Wang has begun to catch up to the rest of the pack. Team officials were pleased with his velocity and command Saturday during a two-inning start against the Mets, and he's now scheduled to start again Thursday against the Yankees.
Lannan, who has been on the same five-day schedule as Wang, will now come out of the bullpen to replace the Taiwanese right-hander. It certainly doesn't look like he'll get another chance to start in a big-league game this spring, not with manager Davey Johnson needing to get his five other starters stretched out in time for Opening Day.
So where does that leave Lannan? The Nationals have three options, none of them particularly appealing...
-- They can keep him in the bullpen, though with Ross Detwiler (and perhaps Tom Gorzelanny) already penciled in there, the Nats have no need for another left-handed long reliever.
-- They can send him to Class AAA, using up Lannan's third and final minor-league option, though they'd be paying him $5 million to pitch in Syracuse. The upshot: Lannan would remain in the organization and be available at a moment's notice if a big-league starter went down.
-- They can trade him, a scenario that sounded plausible back in early February after the Nationals signed Edwin Jackson for $11 million and bumped Lannan out of the rotation, and a scenario that has only picked up steam since then.
What kind of interest is there in Lannan? CBSsports.com's Danny Knobler reported yesterday that the Red Sox and Tigers are "believed to be the teams most focused" on the lefty, with the Astros also showing interest and the Mets and Padres potentially scared off by that $5 million salary.
In the end, though, a general manager's interest level in acquiring any player is only as high as what he's willing to give up for said player in a deal. And that's where this could get tricky.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is intent on getting something of value in return for Lannan. He'd love to acquire a big-league center fielder, though that's probably a pipe dream. The more likely offer will be for a mid-level prospect, perhaps somebody targeted for high-Class A or Class AA who could be big-league ready by the end of 2012 or early in 2013.
Is that enough of a return for a 27-year-old left-hander who you can pretty much pencil in for 30 starts and a sub-4.00 ERA? That's a tough call.
The problem is that Lannan, while a valuable back-of-the-rotation starter for just about any franchise in baseball, is hardly a unique commodity. Guys like him are a dime a dozen (which, it should be noted, is considerably cheaper than $5 million).
Rizzo's best chance may be to hold onto Lannan as long as possible, then hope more than one club needs a starter before Opening Day. Perhaps the Red Sox and Tigers will both find themselves in the running and engage in a minor bidding war. Or perhaps the Nationals will be willing to take on some of Lannan's salary in exchange for a better player in return.
Either way, do-or-die time is fast approaching for Rizzo. He can delay this decision a bit longer, but not forever.
The Nationals break camp in 19 days. The odds of John Lannan joining them for the charter flight north seem slim. His ultimate destination, though, remains the biggest mystery of spring training.