Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Could John Lannan get a third consecutive Opening Day start?
Like: Who in the world is going be the Nationals' Opening Day starter?
This franchise doesn't exactly have an illustrious list of Game 1 hurlers. Livan Hernandez got the honors in 2005 and 2006. John Patterson did it in 2007. Odalis Perez(?!) threw the first pitch in Nationals Park history in 2008. And John Lannan took the ball each of the last two seasons.
For the most part, their counterparts were big-name, veteran starters worthy of such an assignment. Guys like Tom Glavine (2006, Mets), Tim Hudson (2008, Braves) and Roy Halladay (2010, Phillies). Jon Lieber (2005, Phillies) maybe doesn't rank with those three, but he was a solid starting pitcher for a long time. Dontrelle Willis (2007, Marlins) has seen his career fall to pieces, but at the time he owned a career 58-37 record. And Ricky Nolasco (2009, Marlins) may not be a household name, but he was coming off a 15-win season.
Point is, every Opening Day in Nats history has featured a pitching matchup that favored the opposition.
Ah, but that will finally change on March 31, 2011, because while presumptive Braves ace Tim Hudson may be a three-time All-Star, perennial Cy Young award contender and owner of the third-best winning percentage among active pitchers (.655), he's still no Stephen Strasb...
Oh, wait. That's right. How quickly we forget. Looks like it'll be a seventh consecutive pitching mismatch on Opening Day for the Nationals.
So who does get the call for Game 1 next year? It's actually a pretty fascinating debate. There may not be a clear-cut, deserving ace on the projected staff, but there are arguably four guys who could make a case for getting the nod. Let's run through the pros and cons for each:
Pro: He's done it before, he's been the Nats' most-consistent starter this season and he's probably going to lead the staff in wins.
Con: As much as everyone loves Livo, if he's still the ace of your staff at this point, something's wrong.
Pro: He's been the Nats' Opening Day starter each of the last two seasons, he's been their best pitcher down the stretch (6-2, 3.07 ERA since returning from the minors).
Con: He was demoted to Class AA in midseason with his ERA approaching 6.00 and nearly two batters per inning reaching base.
Pro: He's completely turned his fortunes around since returning from the DL, and with a $7.5 million salary he'll be earning more than the rest of the 2011 rotation combined.
Con: At best, he's going to finish 2010 with a 5-8 record and an ERA in the high-5.00s. Is that the pitching line for an Opening Day starter?
Pro: He's got the best stuff on the staff and figures to be the Nats' best starter in 2011.
Con: He'll have made 23 career starts and own at most six big-league wins come Opening Day 2011.
Now, there's a wild card to this whole equation. The Nationals could go out and acquire a big-name pitcher this winter who leapfrogs the rest of the staff and starts on Opening Day. That's not totally out of the question, though it would cost a bundle (and require said pitcher to actually want to come to D.C.).
It seems more likely that one of those four previously mentioned gentlemen will get the ball against the Braves. To me, Hernandez is the best choice. He's been the Nats' best pitcher this season. He's started on Opening Day before. He won't be fazed by the spotlight or the tough matchup. Lannan didn't fare well either of the last two years when given the assignment. Marquis is not a No. 1 starter. Zimmermann doesn't need the added pressure of that start at this delicate stage of his career.
What do you think? If you're Jim Riggleman, who are you handing the ball to on March 31, 2011?