by Dave Nichols and Alyssa Wolice
This week, District Sports Page will take a look at the players that should comprise the 2013 roster of the Washington Nationals. Following a record-setting season last year that saw the Nats finish first in the N.L. East and advance to the playoffs for the first time since the relocation, GM Mike Rizzo has tweaked the roster a bit and expectations have never been higher for the organization, which is expected to be a legitimate World Series contender this season.
Today, we evaluate the Nats’ candidates at starting pitcher. As they prepare to report for Spring Training, the Nats will look to lay the Strasburg Shutdown debate to rest once and for all in the months ahead. The team – which ranked first in ERA and third in strikeouts in the National League in 2012 — boasts a talented Top 5 that can match any on baseball, But injury — or suspension — could put them in a precarious position due to the lack of top-end options in the minor leagues.
Projected Rotation: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Dan Haren
Stephen Strasburg – Stephen Strasburg has not thrown a major league pitch since his Sept. 7 start against the Miami Marlins. In what turned out to be a
3-1 9-7 loss in extras, the big right-hander lasted just three innings – and allowed five runs, including two homers. While the Strasburg Shutdown debate will undoubtedly drag on in sports bars and living rooms across the D.C. metropolitan area, nothing could silence naysayers more than a solid, limitless season for the Nats’ ace. Strasburg has said repeatedly his arm feels great, and it will be interesting to see how he gets back into the swing of things, starting Feb. 12 when pitchers and catchers report for spring training. Nevertheless, while Strasburg is undoubtedly eager to return to the mound, his ability to control the ball with consistency will determine how high he sets the bar for the rest of the rotation.
Gio Gonzalez – Gio Gonzalez has seen better days, no doubt. After the Miami New Times published a report in which the left-hander was linked to a Miami clinic suspected of peddling performance enhancing drugs, Gonzalez denied ever using illegal substances. As more information is revealed, the Nationals may need to prepare for a worst-case scenario in which Gonzalez could face suspension issued by Major League Baseball. Even with a stacked roster, a suspension could deal the playoff favorites of the NL East with an unanticipated challenge. Nevertheless, should Gonzalez start in the Nats’ opening series without any controversy, it will still be hard – but not impossible – for him to top last year’s numbers. Gonzalez posted his best season in the Majors in 2012 with a 21-8 record, 2.89 ERA and 207 strikeouts. Barring any incriminating evidence to link Gonzalez to PEDs, Gonzalez could give Strasburg a run for his money as the two go head-to-head in a likely battle for the best record among Nationals’ starters in 2013.
Jordan Zimmermann – Coming off a 12-8 season in which he posted a 2.94 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in little more than 195 innings, Jordan Zimmermann is likely to head to arbitration in the coming days. General Manager Mike Rizzo reportedly stated that talks are at a stand-still, but the Nationals have not ruled out a potential multi-year extension. The 26-year-old will enter his fifth season with the Nationals this spring and could take on a more pivotal role in the rotation than in years past, particularly if Gio Gonzalez misses any games at the start of the season.
Ross Detwiler – The Nats narrowly avoided arbitration with Ross Detwiler after coming to terms on a $2.3 million deal for 2013. Detwiler came up big for Washington in the second half of last season, and posted a 10-8 record with a 3.40 ERA on the year. Nevertheless, should he continue to improve in the coming months, the Nationals should be feared as a seemingly unstoppable force. Chances are, Detwiler will not make a jump in the rotation with Strasburg and Gonzalez holding down the fort. However, if Gonzalez is dealt a suspension, Detwiler’s role will be elevated and become that much more critical, especially if he is left as the only southpaw in the rotation. If Detwiler keeps his curveball under control throughout the season, and continues to progress in the mental aspects of the game, Washington can rest a little easier knowing he can patch up a hole in the rotation should it surface in the dog days ahead.
Dan Haren – The Nats reached a one-year, $13 million contract with three-time All-Star right-hander Dan Haren in early December. Confronted with back and hip injuries in 2012, the 32-year-old made 30 starts and tallied 12 wins last season for the Los Angeles Angels. In addition to his ability to contribute at the plate from the ninth spot, Haren is solid gamble at the back of the rotation. Nevertheless, the Nationals can also celebrate a moral victory in acquiring Haren, who reportedly drew interest from many teams. Haren was adamant about joining a team with a chance to win this off-season, proving that Washington now stands as a sought-after destination for those serious about October baseball.
Others: Should the Nats have to fill a spot in the rotation, the Nats don’t have the option of turning to their twice opening day starter, John Lannan, like they could last season. Lannan departed via free agency to the division-rival Phillies, leaving the Nats a question mark as to who might be the No. 6 starter this season.
The team has a couple of options of starters with MLB service, including Zach Duke, who figures to start the season as the only left-hander in the bullpen. Duke went 1-0 with a 1.32 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in eight games at the end of the regular season last year, but is a veteran MLB pitcher, with eight years of big league service, including an All-Star selection in 2009.
The team also has said they will try to stretch out Christian Garcia during spring training to see if the hard-throwing righty can transition to starter, but he’s a survivor of a couple of arm surgeries already and may be better suited at this point to remain a valuable option in the pen.
Yunesky Maya was solid for Syracuse last season, turning in an 11-10 campaign with a 3.88 ERA for the Chiefs. He’s faltered in the limited opportunities he’s had at the bi league level since his well-publicized signing in 2010, but could be an option depending on how well he’s throwing this season.
The only other starter on the 40-man roster is minor leaguer Nathan Karns. Karns, 25, is big, at 6’5″ and 230 and has seemingly gotten better as he goes up each level. Last season, split between low-A Hagerstown and high-A Potomac, Karns posted an 11-4 record with a 2.17 ERA and 1.009 WHIP, with an 11.5 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9. Granted, he was probably old for the level,but the Nats are excited to see what the big righty can do at AA this season.
The team signed Ross Ohlendorf to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Ohlendorf, a 30-year old right-hander and Princeton grad, went 4-4 with a 7.77 ERA last year for San Diego, and has six years of MLB service. The Nats hope Ohlendorf can spend the season in Syracuse as the veteran leader of that staff instead of emergency service in D.C.