Washington Nationals Pitching Strong Enough for .500 Run in 2011

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Washington Nationals Pitching Strong Enough for .500 Run in 2011
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Baseball’s Winter Meetings begin next week and by Thursday, the future of the Washington Nationals should be clear.

Can General Manager Mike Rizzo find a top-of-the-rotation starter to replace the injured Stephen Strasburg, and will he replace Adam Dunn with someone equally capable at first?

With Adam Dunn’s contract now off the books, the Nationals could easily add $30 to 40 million in payroll and still be one of the more underfunded teams in the Senior Circuit. And they have been trying.

The Rockies’ Jorge de la Rosa was coveted by many teams this off-season, the Nationals included. But before the team could come close to making a firm offer, he was re-signed by Colorado for two years and $22 million.

Unless something changes in the next month or so, the Nationals will head into spring training with a stable of starters that can give the team at least a chance to win every time they take the mound.

After a rough start and a trip to Double-A Harrisburg, John Lannan rebounded and had a solid second half, going 7-4, 3.42 with a .271/.312/.416 slash line. He is just 25 and continues to improve.

Jordan Zimmermann has come all the way back from Tommy John surgery and is expected to have a breakout year in 2011. Zimmermann, just 24, was shaky in his first game back against the Cardinals but pitched well for the rest of the season. He started six games and went 1-2 with a 4.00 ERA. Opponents batted just .233/.298/.476 against him while striking out eight per nine innings.

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Jason Marquis’ bad start in 2010 led to elbow surgery and a stint on the injured reserve. In his first five starts, he was horrible, going 0-5, 14.33, .405/.500/.703. But from August 20 on, Marquis was solid, crafting a 2-4 record but with a 3.61 ERA and a .275/.346/.383 slash line. He’s healthy, still just 31, and should match his average over the last six seasons of 13-11, 4.49 in 2011.

Livan Hernandez returned from the dead last season and was rewarded with a raise and a major league contract for 2011, something he did not have at the start of spring training last year.

After spinning a 5.28 ERA over the previous four seasons, Livan rebounded in 2010, going 10-12 with a fine 3.66 ERA, 26th-best in the National League (only 30 pitchers with qualifying innings had an earned run average below 4.00).

That leaves one spot open in the rotation with Ross Detwiler (1-3, 4.25), J.D. Martin (1-5, 4.13) and Yunesky Maya (0-3, 5.88) as the most likely candidates to fill it.

Before getting crushed in his last game of the season, Detwiler pitched wonderfully, going 1-2, 2.52, .276/.360/.357 in seven starts. Maya looked both rusty and nervous in his three September starts after his call-up but has been dominant in the Dominican Winter League. In five starts, Maya is 3-1, 0.69, allowing a .163 batting average-against and less than one runner per inning.

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And before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the season, Martin gave his team a chance to win every time he took to the mound.

Not counting his last start—when the elbow problems became acutely apparent—Martin was solid for the Nationals. In seven starts, he went 1-4 but with a 3.35 ERA and a .287/.305/.463 opponent’s slash line.

Martin is healthy and ready to pitch when spring training opens in two months. But the team continues to seek out other options for the rotation, and Martin seems to be an afterthought.

De la Rosa is two years older than Martin, and though he has pitched five more seasons in the major leagues, de la Rosa’s numbers just aren’t all that good. Sure, he’s a strikeout pitcher and can strikeout a batter with runners on base where Martin would have to allow contact to get the out, increasing the chance for runs to score.

But let’s compare the career stats of Martin and de la Rosa. Yes, I understand that the Rockies’ pitcher has a larger body of work but generally, we can get a feel for the type of pitchers they are.

ERA

De la Rosa: 5.02

Martin: 4.32

Hits per nine-innings allowed

De la Rosa: 9.2

Martin: 10.2

Walks per nine-innings allowed

De la Rosa: 4.6

Martin: 2.5

Strikeouts per nine-innings allowed

De la Rosa: 8.0

Martin: 4.9

Base runners per nine-innings allowed

De la Rosa: 1.52

Martin: 1.40

Batting average-against

De la Rosa: .266

Martin: .282

On-base average allowed

De la Rosa: .354

Martin: .334

Slugging average-allowed

De la Rosa: 434

Martin: .492

Percentage of balls thrown for strikes

De la Rosa: 60-percent

Martin: 63-percent

Martin gives up more hits but de la Rosa gives up many more walks. In the end, de la Rosa allows more base runners every inning, giving the opposing team more chances to score.

Of the nine categories, Martin leads in five and de la Rosa in four.

Since joining the Rockies, de la Rosa has averaged—assuming a 162 game season—15 wins and a 4.49 ERA with 1.38 base runners per inning. And the Coors Park curse isn’t in play here; he pitches better at home in Denver than on the road.

Again, based on being a starter for the entire 162 games, Martin has averaged nine wins and a 4.32 ERA with 1.39 base runners per inning.

So Martin gives up fewer runners, has a lower earned run average, is two years younger, and will make under $1 million next year.

De la Rosa has a great fastball, can embarrass hitters with his stuff, but walks more than twice as many batters as Martin.

And he’ll make $11 million in 2011.

I would advise the Nationals—yeah, they’ll listen, right—to go with the four certain starters listed above and give Martin the opportunity to win that fifth spot in the rotation along with Maya and Detwiler.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

That $11 million that the Nationals didn’t spend on de la Rosa, along with the $12 million they didn’t spend on Adam Dunn, could buy two very high quality hitters, a first baseman like Adam LaRoche and an outfielder like Jason Werth or Carl Crawford.

With that kind of offense, the rotation will be good enough for the team to win more games than they lose in 2011.

And, oh yeah, they get back that kid with the 100 mph fastball sometime in August. What was his name again?

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