Questions Heading Into 2012: Pitching Edition, Part 2


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.

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). Back on February 1st we examined the top half of the list, today we’ll move on to the remaining pitchers on staff.

Edwin Jackson, RHP – After joining what will be his 8th organization during his 10 year career, will Jackson perform well enough in 2012 to finally earn the multi-year commitment he’s been seeking for nearly his whole career?

2012 is going to Jackson’s 10th season in the Major Leagues. He has been traded a whopping six times during that career. Washington will be the 8th organization he will be a part of during his career (if we include the Toronto Blue Jays, who acquired him from the White Sox last July before dealing him to St. Louis later that same day). Five of those organizations have come since the start of the 2009 season. In that span, he’s averaged a 12-10 record, 3.96 ERA, and 7.1 K/9 in 208.0 innings a season – respectable, though not spectacular numbers. Yet, for some reason, it would seem as though nobody has wanted to commit to Jackson on a multi-year deal. It’s uncertain what the cause for this is (maybe it’s just simply because his agent is Scott Boras?) but one has to wonder what more Jackson needs to do in order to gain a little bit of continuity to his career. Regardless, it just might the motivation he needs to have a big 2012 season before he sees the free agent market once again next winter.

Ryan Perry, RHP – He’s been inconsistent over parts of three seasons in Detroit. Will a change of scenery be enough to get him to pitch up to his full potential?

Over the past three seasons, Perry has pitched to a 4.07 ERA with a 1.438 WHIP in 161.1 innings of work. While he’s allowed a high hit rate, he has mostly been able to combat having runners on base by a strong strikeout rate (7.2 K/9). His numbers in the minor leagues were even better (8.8 K/9). Detroit had Perry on the fast track after drafting him back in 2008 and it’s possible that expediting his development may have simultaneously stunted it. Perry does have an option remaining, so the 25 year old may see some time in the minor leagues this year depending on how he performs during Spring Training.

Matt Purke, LHP – Will he impress enough this Spring for the organization to put him on the fast track to Washington?

When Purke was taken in the 1st Round of the 2009 by the Texas Rangers he was widely considered one of the top left-handed arms available in the draft that year. He spurned his hometown Rangers, instead opting to fulfill a commitment to TCU. By the 2011 Draft, he had slipped due to some concerns over the health of his arm and the Nationals were able to scoop up the 1st Round talent in the 3rd Round. Purke has yet to make his professional debut, having signed so late last summer, and has been spurned in most of the top prospect rankings we’ve seen published over the past few weeks, largely due to questions about his health. There will be a lot of eyes on him this Spring, both to see how healthy his arm appears and to see how quickly the Nationals believe he could help the organization at the Major League level.

Henry Rodriguez, RHP – His arm is electric, but can he harness his potential enough to warrant a spot in Washington’s bullpen?

Rodriguez is a tricky case. He’s shown flashes throughout his career that lead many to believe he could be a superior late-inning option out of a team’s bullpen. But he’s been inconsistent, causing enough questions about his ability to live up to that potential. With a career strikeout rate of 9.9 K/9, Rodriguez is absolutely an appealing option to have in the bullpen. Putting him alongside a veteran strikeout pitcher such as Brad Lidge could also prove to be greatly beneficial for his development. But the questions remain and we don’t know if he’ll be able to pitch well enough this Spring for the team to keep him in the bullpen. Rodriguez is out of options, which could play a factor into the organization’s decision if they don’t want to risk losing him via waivers.

Atahualpa Severino, LHP – In a crowded bullpen with numerous left-handed options, can Severino do enough to climb the depth charts and make this team?

Sean Burnett will be the Nationals’ main left-handed relief option this season. He’ll likely be joined by one of Tom Gorzelanny, Ross Detwiler, or John Lannan – depending on how the team’s starting rotation shapes up and what decisions they make regarding the number of lefty options they want to carry in the bullpen. At the bottom of that depth chart we have Severino. The 27 year old has strong minor league numbers throughout his career since being signed as an International Free Agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2004 (in 337.2 career minor league innings he holds a 2.93 ERA with 9.4 K/9), but hasn’t been able to earn a significant opportunity to prove himself at the Major League level. Some of that may simply be a numbers game, despite how valuable left-handed relievers are teams just simply won’t fill their bullpens with many of them.

Craig Stammen, RHP – Is he a starter, reliever, or simply organizational filler?

In 38 career starts, Stammen holds a 8-11 record, 5.08 ERA, and 4.6 K/9 in 210.2 innings. In 23 relief appearances he’s 1-1 with a 4.05 ERA and 10.0 K/9 in 33.1 innings. Overall, his numbers have been a bit better in the minor leagues as he boasts a 42-39 record, 3.96 ERA, and 6.9 K/9 in 675.0 career innings. Stammen’s been a reliable pitcher, but hasn’t really shown enough to warrant a full time spot on the Washington roster at any point in his career to date. In a way, he’s the right-handed version of Tom Gorzelanny but may find himself a victim of roster limitations.

Drew Storen, RHP – Are there enough viable and reliable options surrounding Storen at the back end of the Nationals’ bullpen to prevent him from overuse and subsequently blowing out his arm, like many other young closers in recent years?

Joey Devine and Craig Hansen are just two examples in recent years of collegiate closers who were drafted high with an expectation that they’d make a quick rise through the minor leagues to reach the Majors. Devine reached the Majors shortly after being drafted by the Braves, but was inconsistent at best until a trade to Oakland prior to the 2008 season. That year he put up spectacular numbers (6-1, 0.59 ERA, 0.832 WHIP, 45.2 innings) but he would ultimately miss the entire 2009 season due to injury (Tommy John Surgery). He has yet to regain his old form and now finds himself battling for a spot in Oakland’s bullpen. Hansen, meanwhile, also climbed through the minors quickly after being drafted by the Red Sox and, like Devine, was inconsistent upon reaching the Major Leagues. He would end up being dealt to the Pirates during the 2008 season, where his career took a downward turn. The Pirates would release him early during the 2009 season and instead of latching on elsewhere, Hansen ended up taking the full year off from baseball. He’d return in 2010 to throw 16.0 more innings in the Pirates’ minor league system before ultimately calling it a career.

Storen has been a workhorse since being drafted in 2009 by the Nationals. He’s been durable, reliable, and is ultimately going to be a major piece of this Nationals team if they truly are going to make a run at the playoffs this year or next. Storen showed a lot of progress from 2010 into 2011, and with another year under his belt he should continue to develop into the anchor of the Nationals bullpen. To think, if not for a certain young starter named Strasburg he’d likely be considered the team’s top selection in the 2009 Draft.

Stephen Strasburg, RHP – With an innings limit expected to be around 160-170, will Strasburg be dominant enough to cause some to question whether he needs to be shut down late in the season?

Strasburg’s story is one we don’t have to delve too much into. He’s been one of the most hyped pitching prospects to reach the Major Leagues in the past 20 years and to date, his performance on the field has justified much of that promise. Tommy John Surgery cost him most of the 2011 season, though he did return quicker than expected and was able to make 5 late season starts last September, including a 10 strikeout performance against the Marlins on the season’s final day. It’s not secret that Washington plans on shutting down Strasburg once he reaches his innings limit, regardless of where they are in the standings, in an effort to preserve his arm for the long haul. What will be interesting is seeing how dominant he is up until that point – and ultimately how many within the mainstream media question the team’s decision to shut him down at the time even though we all know now that it’s going to happen.

Chien-Ming Wang, RHP – Is he finally healthy enough to make it through a full season? If so, can he return to the form that saw him win 19 games in back-to-back seasons as a Yankee in 2006 and 2007?

Wang has made only 11 starts since the middle of the 2009 season due to a bumpy recovery from injury. And while he pitched well enough in those 11 starts last season to warrant being brought back on a one year deal by the Nationals, it still remains uncertain how well his body is going to hold up over the course of a full season. Wang’s original injury was a concern with ankle, suffered while running the bases during an interleague game rather than actually on the mound. But, with so much missed time he’s been unable to keep up with a regular throwing regimen and we don’t know how well his arm will hold moving forward. Best case scenario he proves to be capable of winning 12+ games with 175+ innings of work. Worst case, he blows out his arm a month into the season and forces the organization to tap into the limited starting pitching depth earlier than expected. Both possibilities seem equally as possible.

Jordan Zimmermann, RHP – Freed from the restraints of an innings limit, is this the year that Zimmermann joins the upper echelon of starters in the National League?

Zimmermann has long been considered a premier talent but he’s yet to put it all together at the Major League level. Some of that, however, is due to missing parts of the 2009 and 2010 seasons due to Tommy John Surgery. Another year removed from the procedure, he will finally be unleashed this season and freed from any innings limits. Zimmermann could be poised for a major breakout season in 2012 but has seemingly gone largely under the radar considering his partners in the rotation. Watch him this season, as I think we’re all going to be impressed with what the 25 year old may be capable of doing on the mound now that the kid gloves are off.