The Nats One Spring Training Battle
There was a time, not that long ago, where most of the Nationals roster was fairly undecided as the team headed into Spring Training. Before the 2007 season the Nats signed a load of pitchers to minor league deals and basically built a rotation from the scrap heap that showed up in Spring Training. Gone are those days and for 2013, Spring Training is more a formality than an event. The Nats have to do it. They have to go through it and get it out of the way, but 24 of the 25 spots on the roster are filled. There could be a surprise or two. Corey Brown could upset Roger Bernadina for the fourth outfielder role or Micah Owings could beat out Tyler Moore for the right handed power bat off the bench, but both of those occurrences exist on the improbable side of the reality spectrum.
The real position battle for the Washington Nationals is the one for the final spot in the bullpen. As it sets up right now it is between Henry Rodriguez, Bill Bray, Will Ohman, and Fernando Abad. The Nats could through a couple monkey wrenches into that by either signing an additional starting pitcher (we'll get to that later) and moving Detwiler to the pen or by allowing Christian Garcia to join the competition instead of trying to stretch him out as a starter. Garcia did enough at the end of last season to have a head start on any of the other suitors vying for the last bullpen spot. If Christian Garcia is added to the competition, the spot is his, so we're going to ignore him as we break down this race before anyone is even lined up in the starter’s blocks.
First is the incumbent, Henry Rodriguez, who boasts a career K/9 of 9.8 and HR/9 of 0.5. If limiting hard contact and striking batters out was all being a pitcher required there would be no real choice in the matter. Henry Rodriguez also has the second best raw stuff of any Nationals pitcher and the best of any reliever with his repertoire of a 100 MPH fastball, a sharp tight slider, and a drop-off the table change-up. The problem is Henry Rodriguez doesn't often know where any of these pitches will be headed and his career 5.8 BB/9 is a testament to that. If Henry Rodriguez can put it together like other flame throwing relievers like Joel Hanrahan and Fernado Rodney have later in their careers then he has a chance to be one of the best relievers not just on the Nationals but in the National League. Then again he may never put it together and simply be no more than he is: an inconsistent reliever with a 4.26 ERA and control issues.
Bill Bray is the best of the lefties with a career 3.74 ERA 8.6 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, and for his career left handed batters have hit .218/.312/.331 off of him. It should be mentioned now that all the lefty relievers the Nats signed have an uphill battle as Henry Rodriguez is out of options and they are all signed to minor league deals. The Nats may be hoping one of them beats Rodriguez out or that the competition inspires him to be better, but one way or another because of Rodriguez's lack of options the lefties have to be that much better than him. If healthy, Bray is the best of them and his career numbers are better than other lefties the Nats looked at this off-season who were signed to major league deals. His only issue is that he is coming off of an injury shortened season and has to prove he is healthy before he can win any job.
Will Ohman is a 35 year old lefty who has had a less than a dazzling career. He has a career 4.28 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, and for his career lefties are hitting .210/.294/.348 off of him. The bad part about Will Ohman is that his best days are behind him. The Nats got him on a minor league deal and will give him a shot to earn a spot, but as with Bray he is at a disadvantage because Rodriguez is out of options and at even more of a disadvantage because Bray has better career numbers. Still he is in the competition and even if he doesn't win during Spring Training, he could earn a call-up at some point during the season much like Mike Gonzalez did in 2012. The last man in the competition, Fernando Abad, is barely worth mentioning as he has a 5.10 career ERA and that may be all that needs to be said about him.
The final, out of the box, way to fill the final roster spot is for the Nats to sign an additional starting pitcher to a major league deal. The Nats have reportedly been scouting Javier Vazquez all off-season, but the more interesting name that has surfaced recently is Kyle Lohse. Lohse is the last remaining big name free against, a Boras client and could be worth a gamble if the Nats can get him on a one year deal. This would push Detwiler to the pen, but he would be the primary back-up starter and no playoff team in 2012 used less than six starters. The Nats are going to need starting depth and right now they don't have anyone else unless Christian Garcia really can be converted to a starter, which is doubtful for the two-time Tommy John survivor.
Kyle Lohse does add something to the Nationals, but it comes with buyer beware warning. That can wait though; let’s examine what Lohse has over Detwiler. Detwiler has youth and potential on his side, but Detwiler has never made it through an entire season and counting on him to do it in 2013 may not be the wisest course of action. Lohse on the other hand has failed to make at least 30 starts in three of his eleven seasons since his call-up year of 2001. Lohse in 2012 averaged 95 pitches and 6.4 innings per start while Detwiler averaged 87 pitches and 5.6 innings pitched per start. Detwiler is the weakest link in the extremely talented Nationals starting rotation. He showed promise last season with a 3.58 ERA in 151 1/3 innings as a starter, and Lohse is a career 4.45 ERA pitcher.
The advantage that Lohse brings is that he is more likely to pitch the innings the Nationals need and it allows Detwiler to go to the pen where he has a 1.11 ERA in 16 appearances. That is a small sample size but Detwiler is a talented pitcher and would give the Nationals the reliever they need to get lefties out. For his career lefties are hitting a measly .214/.307/.300 off of Detwiler while righties hit .272/.331/.418. The question is do the Nationals believe that Detwiler can continue to grow as a starting pitcher, or is what was seen from him in 2012 the best he can be. Lohse isn't necessarily an upgrade over Detwiler on a one-to-one level, but having an additional starting pitcher with Detwiler in the pen would upgrade the team overall.
Now for the big caveat on Kyle Lohse. His best years have come as a St. Louis Cardinal where he had a 3.90 ERA and 1.279 WHIP. The only stat that really improved much when he became a Cardinal was his BB/9 and perhaps Lohse could keep that down, but the history of former Cardinals starters is not good. Joel Pineiro as a Cardinal had a 4.14 ERA down from a 4.41 career average and a 1.269 WHIP down from a 1.348 for his career. His BB/9 was also the only thing significantly different as a Cardinal, but after he left his career bottomed out with the Angels where in two seasons he had a 4.47 ERA and 1.372 WHIP. Jeff Suppan as a Cardinal 3.94 ERA compared to a career average of 4.70 and a 1.411 WHIP compared to a career average of 1.461. After leaving the Cardinals for the Brewers Suppan like Pineiro saw his ERA and WHIP significantly increase.
The history of former Cardinals pitchers is not a good one. They are rarely as good as they were with the Cardinals, but Lohse for one year may be able to sustain somewhat. The chances are though that the Nationals are more likely to get the 4.45 ERA starting pitcher, rather than the 3.90 ERA pitcher that pitched for St. Louis. On a one year deal though, the risks are mitigated. It wouldn't be the worst signing the Nationals could make and let's face it Detwiler as the sixth starter and bullpen arm is an upgrade over Yunesky Maya, Henry Rodriguez, and Bill Bray. Still the Nats are likely better off trying to lure Javier Vazquez on a minor league deal than committing to Lohse. Nats fans should hope that Rizzo's denial of interest in Lohse is a serious denial and not posturing in ongoing contract negotiations.