Questions Heading Into 2012: Pitching Edition, Part 1

Each year teams report to Spring Training with high hopes and expectations for the upcoming season. We hear about countless players showing up in the “best shape of their lives”. But ultimately there are always question marks. Questions facing each and every team. Questions facing each and every player.

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With Spring Training just over two weeks away, let’s take a look at some of the questions facing the members of the Washington Nationals as they arrive in Viera, Florida. To start, let’s look at the pitchers on the current 40-man roster (in alphabetical order for no particular reason).

Sean Burnett, LHP – Which Burnett will the Nationals see in 2012: the one who faltered in the first half of 2011 or the one who was able to bounce back with a strong second half?

Over 41 appearances in the first half of 2011, Burnett allowed opposing hitters to post a .273/.348/.413 line with a 5.67 ERA, seven blown saves, and five losses. After the All Star Break, however, those numbers improved to .228/.297/.326 and a 1.16 ERA. The left-hander won’t turn 30 until mid-September but his performance this season will likely go a long ways towards determining if the organization exercises their side of a mutual option in place for 2013.

Tyler Clippard, RHP – Considering he’s made 70+ appearances in each of the past two seasons, how well will Clippard hold up to such a workload for yet another year? Alternatively, has the organization made enough additions so that Clippard won’t need to appear in such a high number of games?

36 pitchers across Major League Baseball made more than 70 appearances last season. There were 37 in 2010. While numerous pitchers may repeat such a feat over multiple seasons, the injury risk for such a workload is exponentially increased. For instance, anyone remember Pedro Feliciano? He led the Majors over three straight seasons – making 86 appearances in 2008, 88 in 2009, and 92 in 2010. After signing a lucrative two year deal to join the Yankees last winter it was discovered that Feliciano had torn a capsule in his shoulder. The Yankees elected to try rehab instead of scheduling the surgery right away but after nearly six months of no improvement Feliciano went under the knife this past September. He didn’t throw a single pitch for the team in 2011 and there’s a good chance he won’t in 2012 either. Considering he’s now 35, it’s possible his career may be over. There’s no way to tell if Clippard will be in danger of a similar injury should he make so many appearances again for the Nationals in 2012, but the thought is one worth keeping in the back of our minds just in case.

Ross Detwiler, LHP – Has the time finally come for Detwiler to win a spot in the team’s starting rotation?

The soon-to-be 26 year old has received a number of chances over parts of the past five years, making a total of 29 starts in 39 appearances. In addition to going back and forth between Washington and Syracuse, he’s been largely inconsistent on the mound which has been the biggest thing holding him back. Overall he’s 6-14 with a 4.07 ERA in 172.1 career innings. Through his minor league career it’s evident that the left-hander is better suited for the rotation as opposed to a bullpen role. Detwiler’s out of options so his chase of the final rotation spot this Spring will be an interesting one to watch.

Gio Gonzalez, LHP – How well will he adjust to pitching in the NL East instead of the AL West? Will having a new contract in place cause him to feel more or less pressure?

Gonzalez has shown solid improvement over his last two seasons in Oakland, winning 15+ games with an ERA under 3.25 each season. The walk rate has also shown some minor improvements, helping to balance a strong strikeout rate. Gonzalez will be moving from the middle of one impressive rotation trio to another. The big difference, however, is with Washington he’ll find himself as the veteran of the trio and his ability to pitch 200+ innings while being a leader within the clubhouse is going to be vital in the continued development of the organization’s younger pitchers. Considering he’s signed for the next five seasons, there is little pressure on Gonzalez to justify giving up so much talent to acquire him in this first season with the Nationals.

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Tom Gorzelanny, LHP – Considering his preference to be a starting pitcher, will Gorzelanny be able to put aside his frustrations well enough to be a reliable option out of the bullpen?

Gorzelanny split his 2011 season between the rotation and the bullpen. In 15 starts he pitched 82.2 innings with a 4.46 ERA while allowing opposing batters to hit .267/.330/.457 against him. In 15 relief appearances, he threw just 22.1 innings but pitched a 2.42 ERA while keeping opponents to a .222/.284/.333 line. While it would appear that this decision would be an easy one from the organization’s point of view, Gorzelanny has never liked pitching out of the bullpen. A team can’t work around the requests and desires of each and every player on the roster, but it’s unclear if they will even try to accommodate Gorzelanny in this situation.

Cole Kimball, RHP – After an impressive debut this past season, how effective will Kimball be once he returns from injury?

Kimball first made his MLB Debut last May but his season came to an unfortunate end just three weeks later when he started to suffer from inflamation in his right shoulder. After further tests, the inflamation was revealed to be a torn rotator cuff and he underwent surgery shortly thereafter. Most early indications have Kimball returning to game action sometime around June 2012, presuming he doesn’t experience any setbacks in his recovery.

He’d make 12 total appearances, pitching to a 1.93 ERA with 11 strikeouts and 11 walks in 14.0 innings with Washington – but impressed many of those who saw him pitch, leading many to believe he could be destined for a spot at the back end of Washington’s bullpen for years to come. Considering the other current options that the team has available for the bullpen, it should not come as a surprise if the organization does not rush his recovery and return to the Major Leagues. Kimball has options remaining, and should the bullpen be pitching well come early summer Kimball could very easily get in some regular work with Syracuse to regain full strength before rejoining the Nationals.

John Lannan, LHP – How well will he handle having to compete for a spot in the rotation this Spring?

For the past three Springs Lannan has known that a rotation spot was his to lose. And despite showing some improvements over the years, resulting in a career high 10 wins and a career low 3.70 ERA in 2011, the left-hander’s place with the Nationals for 2012 and beyond is up in the air. There are no certainties that Lannan will win a spot in the rotation this Spring, though with his high salary (either $5 Million or $5.7 Million, depending on the verdict from his upcoming arbitration hearing) it seems likely that the other candidates would really have to out pitch him this Spring to see Lannan bumped to a bullpen role (potentially replacing Gorzelanny as the second left-hander/long reliever).

Brad Lidge, RHP – Exactly what does the veteran have left in the tank?

The 35 year old right-hander only appeared in 25 games (19.1 innings) in 2011 and it’s unclear exactly how much he has left in his shoulder. There were multiple teams linked to the veteran reliever over the course of the winter, though the rumblings never pegged the former closer as being close to signing until a deal with Washington was announced. He’s always been a high strikeout pitcher (a career 12.0 K/9) so it is safe to presume he could be a valuable option in the 7th and/or 8th innings as long as he can remain healthy. He also possesses a world of experience that hopefully he’ll be able to share with the younger options on the current pitching staff.

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Ryan Mattheus, RHP – After showing he can get Major League hitters out, can he repeat the success over a longer stretch of time and what will it take for him to get the opportunity?

Mattheus has really turned a page since being acquired by the Nationals from Colorado during the 2009 season. His ERA has dropped significantly, while he’s seen an increase in his strikeout rate and a decrease in walk rate. Many of these changes seem to coincide with when the right-hander was moved from the rotation to the bullpen. He made his MLB Debut this past season after pitching at two levels in the minors, appearing in 35 games (32.0 innings) and pitching to a 2-2 record and 2.81 ERA. Possibly the biggest problem facing Mattheus is simply the numbers, as there are too many bullpen options and not enough roster spots for the Nationals to take everyone to Washington. By default, he may be seeing significant time in Syracuse this season, barring an injury situation.

Yunesky Maya, RHP – What, if anything, will the Nationals get from Maya?

Maya was signed to a four year, Major League contract as an amateur free agent after defecting from Cuba in July 2010. Since that time he’s made 15 starts for the Nationals, totaling a 1-4 record with a 5.52 ERA over 58.2 innings of work, adding 3.2 BB/9 and 4.1 K/9. While those numbers might suggest he merely needs some additional minor league seasoning, the 30 year old hasn’t fared much better in the minors thus far. Over 27 starts (mostly with Triple-A) he’s a combined 5-11 with a 4.77 ERA and 1.252 WHIP in 151.0 innings of work. While his entire career has been spent in the starting rotation, he’s far from the top of the team’s list of possible starters and isn’t talked about much, if at all, when it comes down to projecting the team’s 2012 roster. Maya may be nothing more than organizational filler at this point, making the $8 Million investment in him appear to be a lost cause.

Topics: Brad Lidge, Cole Kimball, Gio Gonzalez, John Lannan, Ross Detwiler, Ryan Mattheus, Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny, Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals, Yunesky Maya

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