After looking at the Nationals’ position players last week, we’ll take a look at the ever-evolving pitching rotation this week.
The bad news for Nats fans is that first round pick Stephen Strasburg is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and will not make his first start until September, if at all. His recovery is on track and many pitchers who have the surgery end up recovering and having successful careers.
The one starter who is poised to shine in 2011 is Jordan Zimmermann (no relation to Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman). Zimmermann has a good slider and developing curve. He knows how to throw strikes and get strikeouts. There are red flags about Zimmermann’s health and his ability to keep the ball down, but he’ll be the young starter that will have to captivate Washington baseball fans until Strasburg’s return.
For better or worse, the leader of this rotation is Livan Hernandez. The 36-year-old is almost purely an innings eater. Hernandez’s game is best described as slow, slower and slowest. He won’t be hitting 90 mph on the radar gun, but he will get the team deep into games without having to tap into the bullpen.
The Nats’ second starter, Jason Marquis, doesn’t bring much to the table. Last season he was brought in to be a pitcher that can go deep into games. Unfortunately, he was injured for most of 2010. Best-case scenario is Marquis returns to form and can be a veteran presence among a staff of youngsters.
One starter who could develop into a quality No. 3 starter is lefty John Lannan. He relies on his great command and his pitching smarts to keep himself in games. Lannan doesn’t have much arm strength as his fastball rarely hits 90 mph and he doesn’t have a great breaking ball, so if he doesn’t have his command, he can get rocked.
The likely fifth starter is recent Cuban defector Yunesky Maya. The 29-year-old saw limited action last year, but he can throw several pitches and can challenge hitters with varying pitch speeds.
The safest bet about the Nationals pitching this year is that Drew Storen will be their closer. Storen has a fastball in the upper 90s that is often forgotten about because he was the other guy taken in the first round after Strasburg. Storen excelled as a setup man last year and, barring any terrible stretch, he looks to be the Nats closer for the season.
The Nationals have a pair of quality lefties in the bullpen. Doug Slaten and Sean Burnett have similar resumes as far as command and pitching smarts. Slaten is more of a power pitcher, while Burnett relies more on people making contact.
The key thing to remember about the Nationals pitching is that no one is really locked in as a permanent fixture. The younger guys might spend some time in the minors, while some of the veterans may end up in the bullpen. There isn’t any pitcher outside of Strasburg who isn’t on the team who could make a significant contribution this year.
In the big picture, the Nationals are a young team with some upside. Their offense should prove competent, and the pitching should also be good enough. The Nationals are going in the right direction but still can’t compete in the National League East. If the Nats are able to finish slightly below .500, it would be a major victory for the organization.