A Plan for the Nats Fourth Starter

 

The Nats currently have Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf, Ross Detwiler, and Taylor Jordan competing for two back of the rotation spots. That all looks good on paper. When healthy Detwiler is a well above average fourth starter in the major leagues, but with a delivery that puts so much pressure on his back and hips he has rarely managed to stay on the field. As good as Jordan and Roark were for the Nationals this season a repeat performance can't be counted on. That is a lot of uncertainty for two spots in the rotation for a team looking to compete.   

There are a couple ways the Nats could go about this. They could ride with two of those four until AJ Cole or Robbie Ray are ready for the majors but that is an unknown time table and even though one of the two pitching prospects is likely to make it to the majors there is always the possibility that neither will be ready this season or in time for when they are needed. Solis, Purke, Hill or others could also step up and be surprises, much like Roark and Jordan were in 2013, but again that isn't something that can be planned for. Going with what they have in system certainly gives them enough bodies to fill two rotation spots, but there is a difference between depth and quality depth that should be noted in this circumstance.    

Heading into 2013 the Nats rotation was set. It looked like one of the strongest five man rotations that had been put together in recent memory, but nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Strasburg and Gonzalez got off to slow starts, Haren looked like his career was coming to a rapid end, and Detwiler spent the majority of the season on the DL. The Nats had tried desperately to add pitchers via minor league deals in the off-season but all they ended up with were Chris Young and Ross Ohlendorf. That wasn't enough depth. Plan number two would be to leave the two spots open and sign a number of pitchers like Shaun Marcum and Colby Lewis to minor league deals with the chance to win a rotation spot out of Spring Training, and if they don't then they will serve as the minor league depth the Nationals lacked in 2013.  

When looking at the second plan it is easy to wonder if that would work if only one rotation spot were open, and in all likelihood it would. You're promising players a competition and a chance at a rotation spot, not a promise that one can be obtained. Having one spot open and the chance to pitch on a contending team is something a lot of down on their luck pitchers would jump at. As for the actual signing of a fourth starter the pitching market is thin this season which means some of the fourth starter types like Ricky Nolasco and Scott Feldman are going to get signed to costly long term deals and simply not be worth it. Then there are the question mark cases of Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay. If they are good, they are among the best pitchers in baseball, but the Nats tried what they thought was a medium risk high reward type deal with Dan Haren and it blew up in their face. It is probably better to be a little gun shy of those types of deals.  

This all brings us to the 37 year old Bronson Arroyo. At the age of 37 Arroyo can't have too much longer in the majors and won't be looking for anything longer than a two year deal. The Reds have already said they won't offer him a qualifying offer so he wouldn't cost a draft pick, and he is about as consistent a pitcher there is in the National League. In eight of the last nine seasons he has pitched 200 innings, in the one he didn't he pitched 199, and has a career ERA of 4.19. Arroyo is the definition of a back of the rotation, keep the team in the ballgame pitcher. Put him with an average offense and a team goes .500 in his starts. That is perfect for the fourth spot in a rotation, and at his age he isn't going to cost anywhere close to what Nolasco or Feldman will and gives the same quality of performance.    

The problem with Arroyo is he is the only one of his type on the market this off-season. Barry Zito could fit that mold as well but an average season for Arroyo would be considered good for Zito. The fact that he is the only one of his type out there is going to make him an attractive target for contending teams with an opening at the back end of the rotation. The certainty that he brings can't be discounted just because his career numbers are mediocre. Mediocre is exactly what the Nationals need and what they would have loved to have gotten from Haren. No team is going to offer Arroyo much more than two years at around $20 million so the decision is going to be on him as to where he wants to pitch. The Nats should be a team interested in signing him unless they want to take a real plunge.   

That brings us to the final option. The Nationals could stay in house, they could add a number of MiLB types and let them duke it out, they could sign someone that brings a little stability or they could go after the top free agent pitcher on the market. The biggest issue with that is the top free agent pitcher is going to cost a posting fee and then a contract. Which in all the total will end up being somewhere around $100-120 million. That is a lot to pay for a pitcher who has never faced MLB quality batters and while some compare Masahiro Tanaka to Yu Darvish there are others that say he isn't quite there. Most scouts agree he could be good but there is always the fear of Dice K. This would be the riskiest move the Nationals could make but it also could be the best one. It isn't going to cost prospects like trading for a current MLB pitcher would and it bring a lot more upside than signing Arroyo does. It also has the chance of making the Nationals rotation three deep after the 2015 season when Jordan Zimmermann's contract is up and until then gives them the possibility of having the best four man rotation in baseball.   

When looking at the options for a fourth starter there really is no bad choice. There are choices that have more risk but those have the chance of having more upside. What if the Nationals sign Arroyo to a two year deal and AJ Cole tears apart AAA and is ready for the majors in June while Detwiler and Arroyo are healthy, but not producing much better than a mid-4.00 ERA? Then the Nationals are leaving a ready and able pitcher in the minor leagues while the major league roster suffers because they have two players they can't get out of the way, but then the Nationals could not sign Arroyo and have both Cole and Ray take steps back at AAA and none of the other pitching prospects take a step forward. There are risks to all of these moves. The Nationals could be the team that wins Tanaka and he could come over and be unable to adapt to facing MLB batters or he could come over and be the fourth top of the rotation stud.

The risks of all these moves have to be weighed by Mike Rizzo and don't count out that all of these moves could be the plan. Plan A could be to sign Tanaka and if he goes somewhere else Rizzo goes after Arroyo and if he goes somewhere else then it is sign a bunch of players to MiLB deals. There is a rhythm to the off-season and when one domino falls a good GM is ready and able to move on to plan B and plan C if that fails. Good GMs have back-up plans for back-up plans and no single one of these options has to be the option. It is very likely that all the options laid out in the above paragraph are all part of the off-season plan and the only way to find out who the Nationals fourth starter will be is to wait and see.     

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