Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Jordan Zimmermann will be the least-experienced member of a deep 2011 rotation.
Rizzo wasn't able to get his man. Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies. Jorge de la Rosa stayed with the Rockies. Zack Greinke exercised his no-trade clause until he had an opportunity to move to a Brewers club better-positioned to win now. Matt Garza's price was too steep, though not too steep for the Cubs to acquire his services.
There were no longer any front-line starters to be had. Rizzo, though, was adamant about improving his rotation, even if only by a tick or two. The last thing he wanted to do was enter 2011 with the same quintet of starters that closed out 2010: Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann and Yunesky Maya.
So when Tom Gorzelanny became available -- thanks in large part to the Cubs' acquisition of Garza -- Rizzo jumped at the opportunity to pick up the 28-year-old left-hander. It cost three minor-leaguers (outfielder Michael Burgess and pitchers A.J. Morris and Graham Hicks) but that wasn't nearly as steep a price as it would have taken to land Greinke or Garza.
Gorzelanny, owner of a career 36-37 record and 4.68 ERA, hardly qualifies as a staff ace. And he won't be asked to assume that role in Washington, even if there is no true staff ace while Stephen Strasburg rehabs from Tommy John surgery. But he's enjoyed some level of success in the big leagues, highlighted by a 14-10 record and 3.88 ERA in 2007 with the Pirates, and that's good enough to put him in the Nationals' Opening Day rotation.
That projected rotation now includes Hernandez, Marquis, Lannan, Zimmermann and Gorzelanny, with Maya, Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang and others trying to force their way into the picture. It's by no means a dominant staff, but it does boast something no previous incarnations of the Nationals' rotation could claim: depth.
Those five projected pitchers have combined to start 902 major-league games. Hernandez (445 career starts) obviously accounts for a large chunk of that, but even Lannan and Gorzelanny (95 starts apiece) have the equivalent of three years' experience heading into 2011. And the only member of the group with minimal service time (Zimmermann, 23 career starts) is a bona fide pitching prospect who has a realistic chance of realizing his potential now that he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery.
None of the Nationals' previous Opening Day rotations possessed that kind of depth and experience. Last year's group owned 750 combined career starts, with Craig Stammen (19) and Garrett Mock (18) essentially rookies. The Opening Day rotations in 2009 (290 combined starts), 2008 (350 combined starts) and 2007 (a paltry 151 combined starts) seriously lacked experience and depth. And while the 2006 (728 combined starts) and 2005 (702 combined starts) staffs boasted legitimate experience, neither could match the projected 2011 rotation in that department.
The 2011 Nationals should have something else previous incarnations were lacking: several backup plans in case things go awry. In Maya (under contract for $2 million each of the next three seasons) and Detwiler (a first-round draft pick) the club has a couple of reasonable alternatives should any of the starting five suffer unforeseen calamity. Wang (re-signed for $1 million) is inching ever closer to a return to the big leagues after missing all of last season while recovering from shoulder surgery.
And, of course, Strasburg is slated to rejoin the fray himself at some point once he completes his long rehab program (though he won't pitch in D.C. until September at the earliest.)
Do the Nationals suddenly have themselves a playoff-caliber rotation? No. But they do appear to have four known quantities in Hernandez, Marquis, Lannan and Gorzelanny, plus an intriguing prospect in Zimmermann who is poised to seize the opportunity this year. And if something goes wrong, they won't have to scrape the absolute bottom of the pitching barrel as they often did in years past.
Would everyone have preferred a true front-line starter a la Lee or Greinke or Garza? Of course. Unable to acquire one of those, though, Rizzo did what he believes was the next best thing.
The 2011 Nationals may not have an ace. But they do figure to have a staff of five legitimate, big-league starters, something that previous incarnations of this franchise couldn't say. It may be a small step forward, but it is a step in the right direction.