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.

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