clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Working On A Mystery

I attended a late showing of Zodiac last evening, or maybe it was last year---this movie is a bit timeless, as Minnie Driver's character from Grosse Point Blank might say. At any rate, Zodiac is a pretty good movie about a satisfyingly engrossing mystery. (Click on "Read More" for spoiler.) It employs an interesting narrative structure, in that the search for the killer's identity more or less conforms to three character-driven acts: first, an arrogant, paranoid, chain-smoking, coke-snorting, hard-drinking, self-destructive San Francisco Chronicle reporter (Robert Downey Jr., as himself); then, a frustrated and, ultimately, partnerless detective always a half-step behind the times (Mark Ruffalo, as bad 1970s wardrobe and sideburns); and finally, a meek Chronicle editorial cartoonist-turned obsessed citizen journalist who aims to keep the story, if not his marriage, alive long after anyone, incluing Zodiac, cares (Jake Gylenrkekdfkfdhaaaaaal, as the most neurotic ex-Eagle Scout one can imagine).

The movie got me thinking about the Nationals' pitching staff. Well, not really, but I'll use it as a hook. Recently, Barry Svrluga of the Post held a "Guess the Rotation" competition at his Nationals Journal spring training blog. Setting aside John Patterson, it seems the fans who chimed in regard Shawn Hill as the only safe bet, which is not surprising given his solid early spring performance. After that, the respondents had pretty much no clue, which is not inappropriate given I'm not even sure if the team's coaching staff has much of one---or even possibly can have much of one---as it tries to determine the keepers out of such a mass of humanity. Six pitchers had between 35 and 63 "total points," however Svrluga tabulated that.

Back to Zodiac, the thought occurs to me that the specific identities in the initial starting rotation do not much matter. Like that movie's narrative structure, the mystery to unravel a big league pitching staff will probably encompass a few acts, or at least waves of starting pitchers. As I noted the other day, the average team doles out 25 percent of its starter innings to fellows not considered part of its initial five-man rotation. With the Nationals, this percentage will almost certainly be higher. In short, the guys ending the season in the rotation will probably be more important than the ones starting off in it.

In a thought-provoking piece last month for the Hardball Times, network colleague Jeff Sackmann evaluated the Minnesota Twins' preseason rotation choices through a prism of "depth vs. uncertainty." The depth was represented by a couple of decidedly meh veteran starters; the uncertainty was represented by some very good (but unestablished) pitching prospects. Sackmann's article is not necessarily on-point with respect to the Nats, but a broader point he makes might have some application:

To set some parameters, let's say that the Twins have seven starters—Johan Santana, Boof Bonser, Carlos Silva, Scott Baker, Garza, Perkins, and Ortiz—who they can expect to be replacement-level or better between April and August. If they want to be seven starters deep (a reasonable number, given the variability in pitcher performance and health), they need to ensure that they have seven such pitchers in their organization.

Furthermore, it's tough to stash starters in your bullpen; while it can be done, a hurler who tosses an inning or two a few times in a week can be hard-pressed to give you five or six innings the next week. Thus, let's stipulate that the two starters who don't crack the rotation will have to go to Triple-A.

Garza and Perkins can do that. Ortiz, however, was going to sign a major-league deal somewhere, and the same can be said of the other pitchers of approximately the same skill level (Trachsel, Tony Armas Jr., etc.). In other words, putting Ortiz in the rotation for a while is a necessary sacrifice in order to have seven decent starters in your organization. The alternative for the Twins would be to use Sidney Ponson (or another lesser pitcher willing to go to Triple-A) as the #7 guy and let Ortiz go elsewhere.

Sackmann posits a very salient point in these three paragraphs: Sometimes, a team must juggle its options in an orderly and deliberate manner to preserve its depth, as viewed over an entire 162-game season.

To apply Sackmann's principle to the Nationals, let's look at Jerome Williams and Matt Chico. Thus far, Williams has pitched horridly and Chico has pitched . . . well, better than horridly. Manny Acta speaks very highly of Chico, and a perception seems to be emerging that he will receive an initial shot in the regular season starting rotation. This may be, or it may be that Chico will see time in the Nats' rotation at some time this season, though maybe after Chico receives some "seasoning" at Columbus. Whatever the case, if a choice comes down to Williams and Chico, the choice might not be determined by spring merit (to the extent spring merit actually exists).

Williams is, I believe (and someone correct me if I'm wrong), out of minor league option years. Chico is not. Chico can be sent to Columbus without encumbrance, but Wiliams more than likely cannot. Given Williams' age and remaining potential, I suspect he would not pass clearly through waivers, and in effect the Nats would have squandered an opportunity with him solely based on a bad Grapefruit League performance. (Alternatively, Williams could be stashed in the RFK bullpen, but it looks fairly crowded there already.) In other words, if it comes down to Williams or Chico in the rotation, there's a strong independent basis on which to put Williams in the first "act" (to pass or fail in actual ballgames) and Chico in a subsequent "act."

Similar choices could be faced with, say, Tim Redding and Jay Bergmann, as well as Jason Simontacchi and Beltran Perez. (Again, someone correct me if I'm wrong about the option status or Bergmann or Perez.) It's possible Simontacchi could go back to Columbus, but he's been pitching pretty well this spring, so there might be a notion not to risk things. Redding, who has been lit up this spring, is out of options. Unlike Williams, the 29 year-old might pass unclaimed through waivers, but you never know.

While we joke about the March Madness-number of pitchers attempting to make the Final Four, so to speak, there really isn't all that much depth on hand. Instead, there are merely a lot of pitchers, which isn't really the same thing. For a couple months, it has seemed a presumption held that Redding and Williams would be in the rotation; the mad dash seemed to involve the final two rotation spots. If the Nats somehow lose Williams, Redding, and Simontacchi (admittedly doubtful with Simontacchi at this point), the depth really does thin out. At that point, the remainder would be Patterson (unfortunately an injury risk), Hill (same), Chico, Bergmann, Billy Traber, Perez, Colby Lewis, Joel Hanrahan, and Chris Michalak, plus a couple of built-in second act lefties, Brandon Claussen and Mike O'Connor, who are currently unavailable. Sure, that still seems like a lot of guys, but if you remove Williams and Redding, you are already starting with perceived second-act guys, and in rotation spots where it would be hoped the first-act guys would remain.

Anyway, the point here is that the Nationals could juggle their depth to maintain whatever depth they have. You can always use Chico in the second or third act, but you might not be able to do the same with Williams.

* * * *

One position where the Nats currently do not have to worry about quality or perceived depth is third base. The Nats and Ryan Zimmerman agreed on a one-year, $400,000 contract today, according to Washington Times beat writer Mark Zuckerman at the Chatter blog. [In another exciting episode of "Basil Thinks Someone Else Has a Weird Name," I am still somewhat dubious that Zimmerman's agent's name is actually Brodie Van Wagenen.]

"Agreed" is an apt description only to the extent Zimmerman had bargaining power, and the only bargaining power he had was to hold out. As Capitol Punishment recounts in an especially cogent post, the Nats held 99.44 percent of the leverage in this negotiation, simply because Zimmerman has such meager service time. The contract's value---or the fact that the sides did not iron out a long-term extension---is not a sign of Lernasten cheapness. Instead, Svrluga reasonably notes at his blog that the risk of injury to Zimmerman is enough to make the Nats think long and hard before locking Zimmerman into guaranteed money, over a number of seasons, before they're actually close to the arbitration process.

Zimmerman's the face and future of this franchise, and management will treat him well. But the Lernastens were under no compulsion to give him a king's ransom . . . yet.

Marcia Clark did it.