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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