Look at any rotation in baseball and it is obvious that no team is going to make it through the season using only five starters. Most people chalk this up to the high occurrence of injuries among starting pitchers and call it a day, but underperformance, weather, and trades can be just as much at fault as injury for teams using more than five starters. Get above a certain level of quality and those teams have two or three solid 180-200 inning starters and then a bunch of other names moving in and out of the rotation based on performance. Given the recent history of Strasburg, Zimmermann, Fister, and Gonzalez there is no reason to think that somewhere between 160-200 innings are likely from all four. That leaves the Nationals with one open spot in the rotation that is either going to be occupied by Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Ross Ohlendorf, or Tanner Roark, and there is no reason it can’t be all of them.
The thought is that one of those four will win the job out of Spring Training and pitch until they are either so bad they have to be removed from the rotation or get hurt and then it will be the duty of the next man up to fill that spot, but there is another way. To find it takes only a quick glimpse to the north. The Orioles got 170 innings plus from two starters, Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez, over 130 from the injured Jason Hammels and Wei-Yin Chin and no more than 90 from anyone else. Most of the pitchers that made up the bottom of the Orioles rotation are what would be called swing men. Pitchers that are somewhere between being a bad starter and a mediocre reliever, but yet the Orioles found a way to somewhat use them effectively. This method worked far better in 2012 than it did in 2013 and the overall weakness of the pitching was exposed when trying to use it for three spots instead of one or two, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea or one that can’t be refined to work for the Nationals fifth starter.
Along with the opening at fifth starter that are also two openings in the bullpen behind Soriano, Clippard, Storen, Stammen, and Blevins. Both Tanner Roark and Ross Detwiler have success in limited bullpen duty and could both fill that need and give the Nationals the ability to rotate starting pitchers based on match-ups. Both the Braves and Phillies have struggled against left handed starting pitching in the past and it would give the Nationals an advantage to start Detwiler in those games, but the Cardinals are a right handed heavy line-up and could fair worse against Roark or Jordan. By doing this the Nationals could be looking at instead of having one fifth starter with a 4.00-4.50 ERA they could have a composite starter with an ERA in the 3.00’s.
Detwiler has been a solid starter when healthy over the last couple seasons but for his career he is much better against left handed hitters than right handed hitters holding left handed hitters to a .627 OPS against him and right handed hitters .767. Starting Detwiler against a lefty heavy line-up would be a way that the Nationals could take advantage of Detwiler’s splits without having to convert him to a reliever full time. Taylor Jordan has similar splits to Detwiler but reversed as he held right handed hitters to a .657 OPS against and left handed hitters to a .761 OPS. Taylor Jordan was shutdown to end the 2013 season and pitched a combined 140 innings between the minors and majors in 2013 and splitting time between relieving and starting would be a way to limit his innings in 2014. In Detwiler’s case he has pitched over 100 innings once in his major league career and that was in 2012 when he pitched 164 1/3 innings. Perhaps the dramatic increase in innings led to him getting hurt in 2013 or health will be something Detwiler always struggles with due to his across the body throwing motion.
Both Detwiler and Taylor Jordan are both talented enough to be fifth starters, but by piecing them together and having them pitch based on match-ups they can be even better, and when they aren’t scheduled as starters they will be relievers that can give the Nationals multiple innings at a time. Neither Detwiler nor Jordan will ever reach the 200 inning mark in this manner but there is a high likelihood that neither of them would do that otherwise. This way the 130 innings they are each capable of giving will be stretched across the rotation and bullpen and they will be pitching when they have the advantage, and if one were to be far more successful than the other then that one would become the full time fifth starter.
With as strong as the top four are in the Nationals rotation they can afford a little experimentation at the back end and this is nowhere as extreme as the piggyback starters the Rockies tried in 2012. This is a strategy that is being currently implemented in baseball and the idea of a swing man that splits time between the rotation and the bullpen goes back a long ways in the sport of baseball. It is a position that has almost been forgotten as the game has become more specialized and moved on a teams want those one inning, give everything they got, fireballers filling up the bullpen. Matt Williams sounds like a manager looking to take every advantage no matter how small because multiple small advantages will eventually add up to one big advantage. Not having a set fifth starter and playing match-ups at the back-end of the rotation is just one more way to take advantage of player’s strengths. Detwiler against lefty heavy line-ups and Taylor Jordan against righty heavy line-ups with Tanner Roark in long relief to step in in case anything goes wrong.
One way or another there is a high probability that multiple pitchers will make an appearance as the Nationals fifth starter, and at least with this method they can control it a little bit instead of waiting for unbearable under performance or injury. By using Jordan and Detwiler as the fifth starter the Nationals will not only take advantage of match-ups but it also serves as an effective measure to limit their innings and keep them healthy. With a team looking to take every advantage this is just one more that is open to them and could be much more than a small advantage as the season unfolds.