Washington Nationals’ pitching staff still taking shape

It is a widely held belief in baseball that pitching wins championships. Right now, the Nationals are not looking like they are ready to win any championships. A glance at the starting rotation can show they are lacking in true depth.

The sure things in the rotation for the time being are the number one and two starters, John Lannan and Jason Marquis. The only real sure thing about these two pitchers is that they are not going anywhere, but each has had his share of problems this year and in the past. In the young season, lefty John Lannan is 1-1. His record is not really indicative of any problems but looking at how much he has actually pitched points to some of the problems the Nationals have been having. In his first two starts of the season, Lannan has only gone 8.2 innings combined while walking six. Sure, it is still very early in the season, but no fan wants to see numbers like these at any point in the year.

In his first season with the Nationals, Marquis has looked even worse than Lannan. His ERA currently sits at 12.96 and he has only pitched 8.1 innings total this season. Marquis is a better pitcher than this and his ERA is obviously inflated because it is early. But one cannot overlook the fact that Marquis is on a team that is not as effective at producing runs as some of his former clubs like the Rockies and the Cubs. This may or may not be a source of pressure to Marquis. It is difficult to pitch thinking that any bad inning will sink the team since runs are hard to come by for the Nats.

The Nationals added another veteran starter this season in Livan Hernandez. The Cuban righty provides the team with a pitcher that can eat innings, an ability younger players struggle with. Hernandez is known throughout baseball as a workhorse for how he gets through games. In his first and only start so far this season, Hernandez went seven shutout innings against the New York Mets. This is a welcoming sight when Lannan and Marquis have each only pitched about one more inning in total despite both having second starts.

If starters do not go deep into games, bullpens suffer. Starters who go only about five innings plus a tired bullpen leads to disasters, or in the Nationals case, 100 loss seasons.

But they have options. There are two players who can have a very big impact. The problem is that they are not yet available. The first is obviously Stephen Strasburg, who is currently pitching in the minor leagues. Strasburg impressed many in his first start of the season by allowing just one earned run and striking out eight in five innings of work. There is no real need to rush Strasburg as it cannot hurt to give him time to develop and get used to higher quality competition. But if Strasburg was to come up to the majors tomorrow the team would be instantly better; they still would not be a playoff team. In all likelihood, Strasburg will make his debut with the team sometime this summer. But that day cannot come soon enough for many baseball fans. The only things fans can do is be patient and remember that good things come to those who wait.

Another pitcher who is waiting in the wings is righty Chien-Ming Wang. Wang is currently recovering from shoulder surgery that has kept him off the mound for the Nationals. He does not have a high strikeout rate meaning he may not be as flashy as Strasburg, but he can get players out. Before he suffered a foot injury that seemed to send his career into a downward spiral, Wang was one of the most effective starters in the American League. In 2006 and 2007 he won 19 games with the Yankees — results the Nationals would not mind seeing from the 30-year-old Taiwan native.

So assuming Wang returns to the team healthy and in 2007 form and that Strasburg will be striking out hapless National League batters left and right this summer, the Nats rotation may not look so dire on paper. Behind Wang and Strasburg they will have Lannan (who realistically is a three or four starter) and Marquis. The fifth starter spot, as of now, would likely belong to Craig Stammen, Livan Hernandez or Scott Olsen. A team like the Nationals will not have as much of a locked in rotation as some of the elite teams in baseball, but they are not far off from having a respectable starting five.

You can reach this staff writer at slindauer@theeagleonline.com.

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