It’s a peril for a team on the brink of competing. Fan-favorite players that toiled while the team struggled eventually get pushed out by younger, shinier, flashier players. Such was the case today for the Washington Nationals, as they sent two-time Opening Day starter John Lannan to Triple-A Syracuse as part of the final cuts before the 2012 Opening Day.
Left-hander Ross Detwiler will start the season as the Nats fifth starter.
“John pitched good for me,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said quietly. “He’s a good big league pitcher. It’s really more about Ross Detwiler.”
“Very difficult decision,” the veteran manager continued. “A tough one. I respect and like John Lannan a lot.”
So tough a decision for Johnson that he had a hard time bringing himself to tell Lannan.
“Actually I was going to have it before the game, and I then I said, ‘No, no,’” Johnson said. “I kind of put it off, put it off, and I was going to have it right before the game, and I said, ‘I’ll do it during the game.’”
Johnson ended up pulling Lannan aside in the third inning of the game against the Red Sox to inform the lefty that he would not be traveling with the team to Chicago for Opening Day.
In addition to the move on Lannan, reliever Chad Durbin opted out of his contract and was released and six players were placed on the disabled list: LF Michael Morse, P Chien-Ming Wang, P Drew Storen and OF Rick Ankiel were all assigned to the 15-day D.L., while P Cole Kimball and 1B Chris Marrero were placed on the 60-day D.L.
The Nationals purchased the contracts of 1B/OF Xavier Nady, 1B Chad Tracy and OF Brett Carroll and placed them on the active roster.
The moves also signify that Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus, right-handed relievers both, will make the Opening Day roster.
Nats manager Davey Johnson was obviously distraught during the post-game press conference following the final pre-season exhibition earlier, an 8-7 loss to the Boston Red Sox.
“It was a tough day, and not the way I would’ve liked to end up spring training,” Johnson said.
Less than a week ago, Johnson said from Spring Training that Lannan would be his fifth starter, but in that period the team decided to turn to the younger Detwiler. Another factor in the decision was that Lannan still had an option remaining on his contract, meaning he could be sent to the minor leagues without being exposed to the waiver process first, a luxury the Nats didn’t have with Detwiler as he was out of options.
“It’s the best [move] right now for the organization,” Johnson said. “As tough as it was, it’s the right decision.”
This move, while surprising in its timing, was not wholly unexpected. The additions of Gio Gonzalez via trade and Edwin Jackson from free agency set up a competition between Lannan, Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang for the fifth slot in the rotation. With Detwiler being flexible to work out of the pen, it looked like Lannan would win that spot when Wang went down with a strained hamstring in a Spring Training game two weeks ago.
But the team opted to give Detwiler the opportunity to finally live up to his lofty pedigree as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft. Detwiler, 26, went 4-5 with a 3.00 ERA in 15 games last season (10 starts) and had a great spring.
As to the organization’s plans for Lannan going forward, Johnson said, “[Lannan]‘s a very luxurious insurance policy.”
Lannan, 27, becomes the highest-paid minor leaguer in America, as he’s slated to make $5 million this year, awarded at arbitration this past off-season. His salary, combined with his less-than-stellar peripheral statistics, was probably why there was a lukewarm reception to Lannan’s availability on the trade market during spring training. Lannan has been a workhorse for the Nats for the last four years, but does so with smoke and mirrors, rarely ever striking anyone out while generating a ton of ground balls.
The crafty lefty went 10-13 last year for the Nationals, with a 3.70 ERA and 1.462 WHIP. He’s thrown more than 180 innings for the Nats in three of the past four years.
Lannan once again finds himself as an Opening Day starter. This time, however, it’ll be in Syracuse. It’s tough for the player, but the team was faced with a decision to protect its assets. It’s the unfortunate perils of an organization’s growth.