Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rating the rotation

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Scott Olsen should make the Opening Day rotation ... if he's healthy.
VIERA, Fla. -- For all the progress they made this winter in bolstering their lineup, overhauling their bullpen and improving their defense, the Nationals know it won't mean a thing if they don't get better starting pitching in 2010 than they got in 2009.

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.

-- 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.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for this Mark.

now one for the Relievers!! pretty please?

Scott Olsen sounds scarily similar to John Patterson and Shawn Hill here.....

Anonymous said...

I would love to know what happened to Shairon Martis. Are we supposed to assume that the 5-0 start was an aberration? And this is the first I've heard of weight issues with him... I'd love to know how he went from "great story" to an afterthought.

Eric said...

Could Balester make the team as a reliever? He has two MLB-caliber pitches and the laid-back oddball personality that would serve him well in the bullpen.

Anonymous said...

I got a total of 465%. That means there is a 35% that someone not mentioned in your post will get a spot.

SonnyG10 said...

Excellent Mark. You really put this in perspective for me. Thanks!

Andrew said...

Mark, good analysis, but this rotation can not be picked based on past reputation.

Innings eaters are great but winnings leaders is what this team needs.

I was not impressed by Livan last season and don't want to see him take a rotation spot from one of the younger guys that may out perform him. Hope this is a fair competition for the Opening Day rotation.

Mark Zuckerman said...

You know, I used to be good at math. Then I went to journalism school and, well, it didn't seem so important anymore.

Anonymous said...
I got a total of 465%. That means there is a 35% that someone not mentioned in your post will get a spot.

Andrew said...

Mark - I assumed your math was to add up to 500% (5 starters times 100%) and you were missing 35%. LOL

Avar said...

Have to disagree that Olsen reminds me of Hill or Patterson. Olsen threw 3 years in FL and made 97 starts. 2 of those 3 years, his ERA was 4.2 or better. Hill and Patterson only dreamed of that kind of success. I think Olsen is a lock. But, he'll have to do well once the season starts because at least a couple of the young guns will tear it up in Syracuse, besides the one from SD State.

Competition is great.

greg said...

yeah, i'm with avar. there's no resemblance beyond "an injury" between olson and patterson/hill. patterson/hill had some "mystery" injuries and unexplained pains. olson had traditional "pitcher" injuries that were perfectly well understood.

apples and oranges... apples and oranges.

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_is_Too_Pessimistic_for_Me said...

Garrett (3-10, 5.62 ERA) Mock as our fifth starter? Oh, pass the bourbon and Maalox. And it's only Spring training.

peric said...

You can throw the other 35% to guys like Aaron Thompson and Chuck James?

I see JD pushing ahead of Livo for the same spot. He has to know this is his last chance. Look how he responded the last time it was his last chance. That was last year in Syracuse. How long will it last? Possibly longer than Olsen, Chico, and Stammen. He won't beat out Detwiler if the guy ever does what he is supposed to do.

George Mock? Sigh ... Detwiler ... Sigh

From an "anonymous" lifetime MLB scout on ESPN's web site:

"I don't pay to see games, but if I had to, I'd pay to see Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants. But if you give me the choice between Lincecum and Cain, I'll take Cain for the next six, seven years."

"Cain can really pitch, man. Lincecum, he's a freak. He weighs 160 or so pounds. He's a max-effort guy with a bad delivery. Don't get me wrong -- he punched out 261 guys last year and he might pitch forever. But it's just that Cain pitches with such ease. He won 14 games last year with a 2.89 ERA. Lincecum won 15 with a 2.48. See what I'm saying?"

They really needed someone like Matt Cain.

greg said...

"someone like matt cain"

you mean, like strasburg? give it a couple of months.

and most teams that aren't the yankees or red sox could need someone like matt cain.

greg said...

(and it's garrett mock, not george)

peric said...

No, someone like Matt Cain. Let's call Strasburg this team's Lincecum.

Sorry ... Garrett Mock.

David said...


Here's a question of semantics, or maybe just personal preference. You mention it's not a question of will Lannan be on the roster it's will he be the "ace" or will he be the #2? My thought is that this team doesn't have an ace, at least not yet. Every team has a #1, but not every team has an ace and a few teams might have two. Is the #1 on every team generally considered an "ace" whether or not he's considered one of the elite pitchers in baseball? I think the ace designation should be left for the elite pitchers in the game. If that's not the conventional thinking, I'm more than willing to reconsider this, but it was just something I was thinking about the other day while I was bored at work.

peric said...

Next big International signing ... wonder when?

peric said...

Guess we'll know more about the pitching staff and rotation by March 5th which I guess is next week. March 5th is when pitchers and catchers report for Syracuse Chiefs spring training ... March 8th position players.

Anonymous said...

Peric, sounds like that scout you quoted was pretty dumb.

"I don't pay to see games, but if I had to, I'd pay to see Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants. But if you give me the choice between Lincecum and Cain, I'll take Cain for the next six, seven years."

"Cain can really pitch, man. Lincecum, he's a freak. He weighs 160 or so pounds. He's a max-effort guy with a bad delivery. Don't get me wrong -- he punched out 261 guys last year and he might pitch forever. But it's just that Cain pitches with such ease. He won 14 games last year with a 2.89 ERA. Lincecum won 15 with a 2.48. See what I'm saying?"

There hasn't been a single person that knows what to look for in pitching deliveries that has actually said anything bad about Tim. It's only scouts that think they know what they are talking about. Mark Prior and his perfect delivery say hi.

I'd much rather Stras be a two time Cy Young winner than Matt Cain any day.

In 2009 Lincecum had a QS% of 81%. Cain? 61%.

I guess we'll have to wait 5 more years... but I don't think that scout could be more wrong.

peric said...

I think the point the scout was making wasn't that Cain was better, I think he feels that because of his unorthodox delivery Lincecum won't last as long as Cain.

Lincecum is the face of the franchise. Because of the $$ SF had to put out to sign him there is some talk that SF might have to let Cain go when he is arbitration eligible next year. Many teams will trade the player before that happens.

The Nats I think really need someone like Cain in addition to Strasburg.

Unkle Wheez said...

My money is on Matt Chico. When he was healthy he was alright. I think the extra speed will do him really good.

markfd said...

Mark -

Thanks for the look at the rotation now that these guys have thrown a couple of bullpen sessions. From what I saw (besides Strasburg) I think the rotation rankings (likelihood of being in it come April 5th) as of right now are as follows:


Olsen (I do not think he will be ready for Opening Day but will be in the rotation at some point)

It will be very interesting to see what happens to the rotation (whatever it looks like on April 5th) on May 1 and June 1 and July 31. Rizzo and his staff will have to make some tough choices as the season goes forward and that is only the rotation! I cannot wait to hear your assessment of the plethora of bullpen arms we have collected.

Great meeting you and keep up the good work...time to head back home.

Mark Zuckerman said...

The Nats have a Matt Cain clone: Jordan Zimmermann. Seriously, before he got hurt last year, I heard several baseball people make the comparison. Similar arsenals, similar body types, similar pitching mentalities.

Steve M. said...

Mark Zuckerman said...
The Nats have a Matt Cain clone: Jordan Zimmermann.

I totally agree with you. I remember Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays facing Jordan in interleague last year and giving him accolades of a future All-Star and Maddon hasnt been the only one giving those remarks.

Ask David Wright about Jordan Zimmermann as he talked about how he attacks a batter.

peric said...


Even JZimm's doctors aren't sure if he will be able to pitch again after her recovers. Look at JD Martin (who probably would have been a Matt Cain clone), Sean Burnett ... do you really believe that JZimm will definitely be able to come back as the same pitcher and be able to do 200 innings for the next 5 years?

So the operative word is "The Nats HAD a Matt Cain clone." Last year they had one before the injury. They need a replacement.

NatsNut said...

a previous post said Lannan may start saturday's game against the mets. the 5-day cycle would put him at opening day. i hope so. opening day should be his.

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