With the acquisition of two more quality starting pitchers this offseason, the Nationals can head into spring training with a legitimate argument that they have built their strongest starting rotation ever. Now, with a solid combination of experience, young potential, and both right-handed and left-handed talent, the competition for the starting assignment on Opening Day will be one of the most closely watched of the spring.
In years past, there has really been no argument. The Nationals have rarely had more than one pitcher who could make a solid case to be the No. 1 starter out of the gate.
In their first two seasons in Washington, Livan Hernandez was hands down the most experienced and talented pitcher on an otherwise undistinguished staff. In 2007, John Patterson was the rising young star on the staff, and in 2008, for the opening of Nationals Park, free-agent acquisition Odalis Perez was the natural choice in a rotation that was being built from the ground up.
For the next two seasons, John Lannan, arguably the first home-grown pitching star since the team move to Washington, was the obvious choice. Last season, a resurgent Livo got the nod over Lanan, who had struggled in 2010.
But this year, manager Davey Johnson has a much tougher choice than the ones that faced his predecessors. Here’s a rundown of the expected rotation and a look at their chances for starting:
Jordan Zimmermann: Pete Kerzel of masn.com believes the right-hander has earned the honor based on his strong 2011, when he went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA. He is in his second full season after Tommy John surgery, so he has no limits on his innings. But he did not pitch in September, so he will need to prove in Spring Training that he can build on last year’s performance.
Stephen Strasburg: The people’s choice for Opening Day would probably be “Strasmas in April,” even if it’s at Wrigley Field. Strasburg is the true superstar of the Nats’ rotation, and would be their most feared arm. But less than two years removed from Tommy John Surgery, the team must still be concerned with protecting his right elbow, and the decision may be to limit him early, rather than late, in case it is in contention in September. A chilly April wind in Chicago might be another factor in the decision.
Gio Gonzalez: The left-hander was the Nats prize acquisition this offseason, coming from Oakland in a trade for some of their top pitching prospects. Although he was the No. 2 starter for Oakland, one could argue that he is taking a step up to a stronger overall rotation. He has also primarily faced American League pitching for the past three seasons, so Johnson might not want to rush him into the top spot.
John Lannan: The opening day starter in two of the past three seasons, the left-hander now oddly finds himself possibly on the outside looking in. Since the Nationals signed Edwin Jackson, multiple reports have the team shopping Lannan, even though General Manager Mike Rizzo denied that in this CSN Washington transcript of his conference call on the Jackson signing. Lannan doesn’t seem ruffled by the talk, though, telling Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post that he’s pad no attention to the trade talk. Still, as far as the opening day assignment is concerned, Lannan is no longer the No. 1 starter by any argument and would be a long shot to get it.
Edwin Jackson: In his conference call, Rizzo described Jackson as an “innings eater.” Most teams want the guy at the top of their rotation to be durable, but that’s not how they initially refer to him. Jackson was a key player in the Cardinals’ wild-card run last season, but he was hardly a No. 1 starter, and it would be a big surprise to see him as the opening day starter.
Ross Detwiler, an occasional starter last season, and Chien-Ming Wang, who returned to the big leagues just last July after missing most of the previous two seasons with a shoulder injury, are not serious candidates to be the opening day starting pitcher.