Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Craig Stammen, like several Nats starters, needs to make a better case for himself.
And then, there's ... what? After Stephen Strasburg and Livan Hernandez, what exactly do the Nationals have in their starting rotation? From what we've seen so far, not much. The Nats are 18-11 in games started by Strasburg and Hernandez. When anyone else pitches, they're 24-46.
So the line around NatsTown these days goes something like: "Strasburg and Livo, the rest get the heave-ho."
(Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)
It should be noted that among the plethora of issues facing the Nationals over the remainder of the season, none may be as significant as the continued attempt to fill out a rotation that looks less established with each passing day.
This wasn't supposed to be the Nats' biggest question mark, not at this stage of the year. By now, they were supposed to be fielding a starting quintet of Strasburg, John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang, Jason Marquis and one more fill-in until Jordan Zimmermann was ready to return from Tommy John surgery. That was the rotation that was supposed to give this organization reason to believe it could contend in 2011.
It's entirely possible that group will emerge next spring and take the National League by storm. But it's not likely. Wang, whose surgically repaired shoulder still hasn't progressed to the point he can appear in an actual minor-league game, may never pitch for this club. Lannan, who was shipped off to Harrisburg a month ago and has yet to discover whatever it is that eludes him, may never return at this rate. Marquis, who got two years and $15 million to serve as a stabilizing, veteran presence in this rotation, should return from his elbow surgery within a couple of weeks. But who knows what to expect from him at this point. Certainly, you can't just assume success.
The Nationals are pinning a lot on Zimmermann, who after the long and lonely path following Tommy John surgery has nearly made it all the way back. His return sometime in mid-August could be as significant a development for this franchise as Strasburg's arrival nearly two months ago. This is the only other true power arm in the Nationals' pipeline, at least among those starters who can make an impact on this club in the next year or two. Club officials have already penciled him in as the No. 2 starter next season behind Strasburg.
If that all works out, great. It would be a wonderful story of perseverance for the young right-hander, who was headed on the right path one year ago before his elbow blew out. But you can't just assume it's all going to work out. As many Tommy John success stories as they are these days -- Josh Johnson immediately comes to mind -- the success rate isn't 100 percent. Some pitchers come back stronger and better. Some come back but aren't the same pitcher. And some never make it back.
Even if Zimmermann takes the Nats by storm and becomes Strasburg's trusted sidekick, the rest of the rotation still looms as a huge question mark. It seems obvious at this point that Hernandez will be back; he's just too valuable right now. But who else figures into the picture?
There are no shortage of candidates: Lannan, Marquis, Wang, Scott Olsen, Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Luis Atilano, J.D. Martin, Matt Chico. In theory, only two of those pitchers need to pan out and assume the final two spots in the rotation.
But what's your level of confidence in any of those guys right now? Who's the surest thing in that group? There isn't one. Every one of them either hasn't established he can stay healthy or that he can consistently get big-league hitters out. They've all had their moments. None has managed to sustain it.
(Edited to add: I forgot to include Yuneski Maya, the Cuban right-hander the Nats are on the verge of signing. Mike Rizzo said he could be ready to pitch in the majors within weeks, though he still must secure his visa and pass a physical before the signing is complete. If that happens, he certainly figures into the plan moving forward.)
After a brutal, 3-7 road trip -- all three games were won by either Strasburg or Hernandez -- the Nationals returned home last night. They'll open a tough homestand against the Braves and Phillies tomorrow, hoping their two effective starters can do their job right off the bat and then hoping the rest of the bunch can somehow finagle another win or two the rest of the week.
But if the Nationals are going to take a true step forward and give people a reason to believe there are brighter days in the not-to-distant future, they can't get by with two quality starting pitchers.
Eventually, a couple more guys from the pack have to make a case for themselves to join that duo. And if they could do it over the next 63 games, the Nats would greatly appreciate it.