The Rotation Puzzle
Take a long look at the Washington Nationals' pitching rotation, and the uncertainties form a gnarly pile-up. The team doesn't know how much time injured lefty Scott Olsen will miss. And it doesn't know if Monday's starter (Ross Detwiler) will stick around long enough to be Saturday's starter. And it doesn't know if Thursday's starter, the struggling Daniel Cabrera, is pitching himself out of the rotation or back toward adequacy.
For the moment, then, the Nationals are taking only the short view, confronting each uncertainty as it comes along.
Detwiler will be promoted from Class AA Harrisburg before tomorrow's game. Though he could stick in the big leagues for a while -- especially if Olsen misses several weeks with shoulder tendinitis -- he is being guaranteed only one start. Cabrera, too, will start again, despite placing, on average, more than two runners on base per inning this year. His velocity on Saturday night occasionally touched 96, an improvement some in the organization are interpreting as a basic sign of hope. Either way, though, Washington's rotation remains a puzzle. Cabrera and Olsen, the two veterans acquired this offseason to anchor the No. 2 and No. 3 rotation spots, have combined for a 6.61 ERA this year. The Nationals are 1-14 when they pitch.
Only Olsen's injury has opened the door for Detwiler (0-3, 2.96), of course, but the right performance will help him stick around.
"Let's face it," Manager Manny Acta said, "if the kid goes out and gives eight shutout innings and allows only three hits, are we going to give him a ticket back knowing we need another pitcher?"
The 2007 first-round pick has too often looked shaky in the minors, and this spring, he sometimes appeared overmatched, but his quick start with Class AA Harrisburg this season convinced the team to give him a chance. Plus, logistics gave him an edge over the other candidate for promotion, Class AAA Syracuse's Craig Stammen (4-2, 1.80 ERA). Stammen started on Friday night, negating the chance for a Monday start. Plus, he's not on the 40-man roster; Detwiler, who threw a bullpen session yesterday and will start on a full week's rest, already is.
"We're going to take this start with Detwiler one start at a time," Acting General Manager Rizzo said. "He's still in a developmental stage in his career, and we thought he was the best option for us on a short-term as a fill-in for an injured player. But long-term we're still trying to figure out what our options are."
A few additional notes on those in the rotation puzzle...
* According to pitching coach Randy St. Claire, Detwiler has made steady improvement this year on his pitching lines -- his path to home plate, a problem in the past. He's been accurate with his fastball and mixing his pitches.
* Acta on Detwiler: "We're happy that he was able to shake off the spring training he had where he was a bit erratic, but this is a guy that we drafted first, and we have high hopes on him... He wasn't a high school pitcher; he was a college guy, drafted No. 1. He came up to the big leagues his first year, and we wanted to see better results. Especially in Class A ball [last year]. So he went to Class AA, and we felt like that was challenge for him, and he has responded well so far."
* St. Claire on Cabrera's start yesterday, and why he saw signs of improvement. (Sorry, NJ still hasn't opened its Kool-Aid stand. But look elsewhere, if you need some to drink this down.) "For the first four innings, I thought they were pretty good. He made the mistake to [Ryan] Howard on the high change-up that got hit out of the ballpark, but besides that he walked one in the first four innings. His fastball velocity was up to 96 mph. One pitch at 96 mph. He threw a lot of 95s and 94s. Most of the time was 93-94, so he's making progress with what he's been working on. In that fifth inning he got back when he started to struggle, he tried too be fine with his pitches again and place the ball, and all of a sudden his velocity dropped -- 88 to 90 mph was where he was in the last inning. And for me, he needs to be aggressive. But for me, it was a very positive sign, those first four innings, because I finally saw him finally getting back to where he needs to be."
* Everybody is raving about Stammen, who has clearly become the next-in-line starter from Class AAA. He probably would have gotten the call for Monday, if it timed out right. Plus, the fact that he's not on the 40-man roster makes him a tougher candidate for a spot start. But if the Nats decide that Detwiler can't replace Olsen for the next few weeks, Stammen could be the guy. "Stammen has thrown very well," Rizzo said. "He's come up with a two-seam fastball that has been the reason for his improvement. Last year when I saw him his fastball was firm -- 93 or 94 -- but it was a little straight. Now it's got a little more life. He's getting many, many more groundballs than he has in the past. He's throwing really well down there."
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