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Oh . . . [darn]

According to Nats.com, John Patterson will be scratched from Thursday's start against St. Louis because of a strained muscle in his right forearm:

Dr. Bruce Thomas, the Nationals' head team physician, said that Patterson will not throw for three or four days. If the injury improves, Patterson more than likely will pitch against the Mets on May 2.

Patterson has had problems with the forearm since Spring Training, and it started to tighten up on him in the eighth inning of his last outing, against the Braves last Friday. The soreness prevents him from throwing breaking balls.

"It's pretty much a muscle strain," said Thomas. "We don't want to take the risk of changing his mechanics, so we'll hold him out. If we give him three to five days of no throwing, it could [get better] pretty quickly, because he is in terrific shape."

The article states that a temporary replacement for Patterson in the rotation has not been decided. Rotoworld speculates that Steve Watkins, 1-0, 3.14 at Triple-A New Orleans, might be the choice. However, tonight's 6-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds might have provided a clue. Starter Billy Traber (himself replacing Ryan Drese in the rotation, who replaced Pedro Astacio in the rotation) was knocked out early; Jon Rauch, the team's long-man, did not appear. Instead, oft-used Gary Majewski made perhaps his earliest appearance in a Nats' uniform, finishing up the second inning and then completing the third. Joey Eischen pitched the fourth, probably his earliest appearance since one of those Tony Armas/"Chug some Gatorade!" games last summer. Set-up man Felix Rodriguez tossed two innings; so did lefty short reliever Mike Stanton. Chad Cordero finished it out, in a non-save situation.

A review of Rauch's game log reveals that he pitched an inning yesterday and has not otherwise appeared since April 20. Rauch is well-rested and, as long as he remains well-rested through tomorrow, it would seem that he would be the man for Thursday.

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But that's really the rub, isn't it? Ramon Ortiz goes Wednesday night for the Nats, and he's given every indication of being toast so far. In three starts, Ortiz has averaged only five-and-a-third innings per outing, going five, six, and five innings. In each case, he gave up far more hits than innings pitched, and in no case did he show any aptitude of eluding the bats of his opponents: a pathetic two strikeouts in 16 innings pitched. At least Ortiz, too, will be well-rested. When last seen, he was complaining in the media for Frank Robinson possessing the temerity to skip his turn in the rotation following a rain-out.

Prior to the season, I selected Ortiz---foolishly, it would appear---as a key to the season, perhaps the key. Disregard that I never really defined the key to what: The playoffs? No. A winning season? Almost certainly not. Seventy-five wins? I suppose so. I admit there's not a tremendous amount riding on such a consequence; as Baseball Prospectus' new book, Baseball Between the Numbers, demonstrates, there's not a whole lot to be gained for pushing for a specific number of wins below at least 82 or 85 or 90; by comparison, 75 is rather inconsequential.

Still, here was my thinking: In 2005, the average National League team received 973 innings pitched from its starters (as opposed to 467 from its relievers). Even assuming that Frank Robinson could again stretch out the bullpen effectively such that only 900-950 starters' innings would be required, that's still 450-500 innings beyond what Hernandez and Patterson could have been expected to provide as a reasonable best-case scenario.

Who else was going to fill those innings? Well, the hope was we could fill in Brian Lawrence's name with an indelible Sharpie. Lawrence wasn't a great bet to be particularly good on the mound, but he seemed a solid bet to occupy the mound quite a lot and at a rate of performance appreciably better than a replacement level pitcher. Lawrence was gone about thirty-five seconds into spring training, though---and suddenly the Nats faced uncertaintly at three spots in the rotation, as opposed to two.

Four obvious candidates remained (or, in one case, subsequently emerged) for those three spots: 1) Ortiz, 2) Ryan Drese, 3) Tony Armas, Jr., and 4) Pedro Astacio. (A fifth, Rauch, appeared destined for long relief from the outset.) Now, Drese is a complete question mark, an injury- and ineffectiveness-risk. Astacio was not a question mark, at least in the sense that it appeared a fait accompli he'd suffer an injury---and he almost immediately did. As for Armas, he's an enigma; even when he's shown flashes of brilliance, he's suited to the back end of a rotation (figuratively, if not literally), because he's both inefficient and lacks stamina.

Ortiz, even given his significant struggles since his last good year in 2002, seemed the best bet to combine health with stamina with passable pitching. If he could toss 200 innings at the rate of, say, a 90-95 ERA+, that would have value to the Nats; at the very least, it would come 200 innings closer to bridging the gap.

As it were, Armas has been close to brilliant so far, but Astacio and then Drese have been stymied by injury. And Ortiz has been wretched. Barring a turnaround from Ortiz and health from Astacio and/or Drese (out at least a month more with a flexor strain), the rotation will feature more of Billy Traber and perhaps Watkins and Andrew Good and Anastacio Martinez and any of a host of minor leaguers. Notwithstanding Traber's pitiful performance tonight, that might not be a terrible thing---to an extent.

But if Ortiz remains awful and the others remain of sketchy health---and, worse yet, Armas breaks down, Livan doesn't recover from his early woes, and Patterson's elbow becomes a bigger problem---then I guarantee you the novelty of young, fourth/fifth starter-ceiling hurlers will wear thing mighty quickly.

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Alfonso Soriano homered again in Tuesday's defeat, and hours before he received more attention from the Natosphere.

Harper from Oleanders & Morning Glories preaches patience in evaluating the Soriano acquisition:

I like to evaluate trades when they happen, after the initial year, and in far retrospect. When a trade happens you can take what you know about the players involved, about the situation it sets up for the teams involved, and make an educated guess on whether the trade will turn out well for your team or not. After the initial year is over, you can look at everyone's performances and think about how it worked out in the immediacy of the current year. It's a good time to look at the performances before players go on to sign with different clubs, or get traded away to different teams. Then in far retrospect you can better see how minor leaguers developed and how the trade effected the club in the long term. Did it provoke a bad signing? Did it make the team try to build around a player that subsequently collapsed? Only several years into the future can we really see the impact of any major deal.

. . . I think it's the high-profileness of this deal that really makes us want to make a quick judgement. You don't see many Nats fans worried that Vinny Castilla is performing well right now or that Jamey Carroll is doing better in Colorado than his versatile replacement Damian Jackson. These deals could have had a big effect on the Nats year, but in comparison to the Soriano deal they were minor trades for minor players.

Those are certainly fair points. Plus, it's early. Although Soriano has looked great so far, for all we know, he could hit .240 in May and June, or he could tire of playing left as an on-the-job-training initiative, and subsequently be dealt at the deadline with reduced trade value. Lots of weird and unwelcome stuff can happen in a matter of weeks or months; just ask the 2005 Nationals.

DM from Nats Blog speculates why, among others, I am "bullish" on Soriano so far, and I think he hits pretty close to the mark:

I think the cautionary approach from OMG is the right one, but I will say that I've been surprised by how much I enjoy watching Soriano hit, and I think that is the source of the optimism in Nate's and Basil's posts. He is unlike any hitter we've seen on the Nats -- quick hands, unexpected strength from a wiry frame, casual but potent speed on the bases. It seems like he hits the ball harder than any other Nat, even the singles.

This image of him is in direct contrast to the surly malcontent we heard about all winter -- there is an enthusiasm in the way he plays the game that was not evident in the offseason.

Yeah, I think that's all reasonable. Essentially, Soriano is the Nats' most dynamic player, and he's been doing things that haven't been expected of him so far: employing (generally speaking) a more patient hitting style, approaching the team's need with an amicable and malleable attitude, projecting a positive attitude, and basically playing dynamic baseball. Nick Johnson has been a better hitter, but it's undeniable that Soriano can do things that we didn't see from a Nat last season. I find it hard to regard him in any way other than admiration.

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Farid from Beltway Boys is troubled by Jeff Smulyan's (cynical?) pledge to install Eric Holder as team president should <strike>Smulyan</strike> Emmis Communications be awarded the team. The issue involves the often-contentious subject of race, and I give credit to Farid for crafting a post that simultaneously takes a strong position without being mired in the caustic and divisive rhetoric that invariably accompanies the subject.