The Nats and Pitching Depth
One of the biggest stories coming into this season was who would the Nats sixth starter be. Who would they use if injuries occurred or a fill in was needed? First it was Zach Duke, and he was horrible. Then it was Nathan Karns, and he didn't look ready for the majors. And finally it was Ross Ohlendorf and while he wasn't supremely impressive he got the job done. The Nats pitching depth in the upper minors is still a question mark. Ohlendorf was good in one start, but that won't likely last, Karns had his moments in his starts but a 25 year old two pitch pitcher at AA is more likely a future reliever than anything else, Chris Young has struggled at AAA, and the Nats don't believe that Danny Rosenbaum's stuff can get major league hitters out.
Hopefully the only thing that let's one of these pitchers back into the majors is a rain delay and the Nats deal with no more injuries to their top four. If Haren continues to struggle the Nats are just a little over a month from the trade deadline and that issue will be solved that way, and while that may fix the fifth starters spot for next season it most likely won't. The Nats don't have the major league ready prospects to make a trade for a top of the line starter like Justin Masterson or the Philies Cliff Lee. Any trade the Nats make is more likely to bring back a more traditional back of the rotation type unless they take on someone else's big contract mistake.
In all likelihood the Nats are going to be going to be searching for a fifth starter come this off-season, and like most things in baseball the best answer is to turn inward. May be Karns can learn the change-up to a degree where he can be an effective three pitch starter, but I do not believe that to be the case. I look at Nathan Karns and I see reliever, and not a bad reliever by any stretch of the imagination. Karns has pitched a career high of 116 innings in the minor leagues and is highly unlikely to be much more than a 150-170 inning starter which is fine for a fifth starter, but imagine instead of his fastball sitting at 93-95 it sits 95-97 and his slurve suddenly becomes a pitch than can keep batters off balance, and instead of pitching 150-170 innings in 32 games he is pitching 90-110 innings in 70 games. Karns could very well be an extremely effective long reliever, but not really a long reliever. Think of how Stammen has been used when a starter can only go five instead of putting someone not as good out there for an inning at a time the Nats go to one of their best relievers for two innings to bridge to the set-up man and closer, and two of those types of pitchers is better than one. Especially when the fifth starters role is in doubt.
Looking at Karns rotation mates in the Harrisburg rotation and there are some guys that stand out. It should first be noted that the average age of a pitcher in the Eastern League is 24.6 so while Karns is borderline too old for the level 23 year old Paul Demny and 24 year old Taylor Jordan are at the level they should be. It is hard to trust minor league stats. Control pitchers that can outsmart the lesser hitters of the minors can be high strikeout guys and with the poor infields and infielders minor league ERA is close to useless. Without having seen a pitcher pitch it is hard to say what they have or what they can be, but with that aside Paul Demny profiles as a power pitcher with a 9.7 K/9 and a 3.3 BB/9. Those are standard numbers for a pitcher throwing hard and sometimes struggling with control and without having access to any scouting reports or radar readings I would guess that Demny is much like Karns when it comes to a good low to mid-90s fastball with some type of power breaking ball. At 23 years old Demny has a couple more years to figure it out, but very well could finish the season at AAA and earn an invite to Spring Training to compete for a spot at the back of the Nats rotation.
The next pitcher is the one that is starting to look really exciting. Taylor Jordan is 24 years old. He started the season at Potomac but quickly moved up to AA when he dominated that level and has continued his domination at the AA level. According to some folks I've spoken with in the area he has a plus fastball, good breaking ball, and a developing change-up. His numbers certainly indicate he knows how to pitch with a 8.6 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9. Much more of a control pitcher than either Karns are Demny and with a 0.66 ERA and 0.780 WHIP he could see AAA before the all-star break, and should without question earn himself an invite to Nats Spring Training camp next season.
Demny, Karns, and Jordan are the three main Nats minor leaguers that should compete for the open fifth starters spot in Spring Training next season, but don't count the Nats out of offer invites to going outside of the organization and inviting other pitchers into camp like they did with Ohlendorf and Young this past Spring Training. The problem with the 2013 Nats was that they didn't have an open roster spot for even a fifth starter and those looking for one last chance to pitch in the big leagues didn't see it with the Nats. There are also pitchers currently at Potomac in 21 year olds AJ Cole and Robbie Ray who are outside shots to finish the season at AA and 23 year old Blake Schwartz who could get the call to AA when Jordan or Demny are moved up to AAA. If things break right for Schwartz he could be added into the list of pitchers competing for a roster spot in Spring Training.
Between the three AA pitchers, non-roster invitees, and the outside shot of a single A pitchers suddenly finding the fast track the Nats should be able to find a fifth starter for the 2014 season without having to resort to handing out another $11-$13 mil deal to someone that was once good. It somewhat worked with Edwin Jackson, but hasn't worked so well with Haren, and it probably wouldn't work out with either Tim Lincecum or Roy Halladay. The Nats do not have the pitching depth at the upper minors to cover much in the way of anymore injuries to the pitching staff for this season, but come next season they should be able to get decent production out of the fifth starters spot with the players they have in the system, and it should be noted that it doesn't have to be one pitcher for the entire season. If Karns starts the season as the fifth starter and struggles the Nats are allowed to option him to the minors or move him to the bullpen and bring in Taylor Jordan or Paul Demny for an extended try out, and all of it for a lot less money than it would take to bring in another free agent pitcher.
There is also some more positive news when it comes to pitching at the lower minors. 22 year old Matt Purke is back to pitching and has 22 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings pitched for the Hagerstown Suns this season and most importantly his arm is still attached. Sammy Solis briefly came off the DL after his Tommy John's surgery but is back on it with an undetermined injury. If either one of those can stay healthy and continue pitching they could be on the fast track and could be someone that Nats fans see as early as mid-June of 2014. There are some other starters on the Hagerstown roster with interesting numbers, but without having seen them for myself I have no idea what to make of those numbers and if they are getting guys out with pure deception are if they are indeed overpowering pitchers with a promising future. Of course it should be noted that I once watch Corey Van Allen strikeout 14 with a power fastball and was extremely impressed, but his secondary pitches never developed and he lost velocity on the fastball due to injuries and never lived up to what I saw that day.
It is hard to tell a lot about a minor leaguer's future based solely o numbers, but the Nats do have enough pitchers that could be ready to compete for a roster spot in Spring Training that spending the money to bring in another fifth starter would not be a wise move. They may not be ready to help the Nats this season in case of additional injuries are rain delays, but the next crop is coming and they may very well be the best option for the roster spot behind Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and Detwiler when the Nats head to Spring Training in 2014.