Another Piece of the (Future) Puzzle?

The Nats placed Scott Olsen (left shoulder tendinitis) on the disabled list after Saturday's games, but that's not the big story.  For all of the flak that Daniel Cabrera has taken (deservedly so, in my eyes) for his struggles, it could easily be argued that Olsen has been worse.  After Saturday's 8-5 loss to the Phillies, Olsen finds himself 1-4 with a 7.24 ERA, a 1.90 WHIP, and a 29:18 strikeout to walk ratio in 41 innings.  A year after limiiting the league to a .253 average in his first 200 inning season, Olsen has been lit up by opposing hitters for a .335 average over his first eight starts.  While we can't know how much the bum shoulder has impacted that, we can say with absolute certainty that it's not helping.

Still, Olsen isn't the big news.  It's his replacement on the 25-man roster, 2007 first round pick Ross Detwiler.  The 24-year-old left-hander had a solid professional debut after signing in 2007.  He dominated briefly in rookie ball, with a 2.25 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP, and a 15:3 strikeout to walk ratio in 12 innings.  There were certainly some struggles after he earned the quick call to Potomac in 2007, but he didn't look intimidated when he got the obligatory cup of coffee with the big club in September.  He had just one inning of work, but didn't yield a hit or walk in the inning.  We didn't see much, but watching the (supposed) crown jewel of a draft class widely considered among the best in the league make a nice debut gave great hope for the future.

While it's hard to consider 2008 a lost season, Detwiler certainly had his struggles.  Detwiler worked quite a bit on the mechanics of his delivery after a poor start to the season, though he did show signs of getting on track as the season wore on.  He pitched all season at High A Potomac, finishing the season with a 4.88 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP in 124 innings.  His walk rate (4.1:9 IP) was a bit high, but stomachable.  There were certainly some positives here, though, as he struck out 8.3 batters per nine innings pitched and had a very strong 1.61 Groundball to Flyball ratio. 


There's not a lot to go on with the early returns of 2009.  We'll get the negative out of the way early before moving on to some of what may have been the deciding factors in going with Detwiler (making the jump from AA to the majors) instead of a pitcher like Craig Stammen (off to a hot start at AAA) or Colin Balester (hot and cold at AAA, but a part of last season's rotation who seems like he may have a real future with the club himself). 

The Bad

In six starts, Detwiler has had only one outing that could be considered poor so far this season. There are certainly some areas (which we can't pinpoint to one start) where he'll have an opportunity to improve as the season wears on, though.  Despite his current 2.96 ERA, Detwiler is 0-3 on the year.

- He was lit up for five earned runs on four hits and two walks as he lasted just 2.2 innings in the second of back to back starts against Reading (Philadelphia's AA squad). Bad starts happen even to the best of pitchers, but there has to be some concern that Reading was able to adjust so well to him in his second start against them.

- Detwiler really hasn't been stretched out so far this season.  Particularly in cases where you're dealing with a large investment, it's important to be cautious by limiting a young pitcher's pitch counts.  Still, it's noteworthy that Detwiler has yet to last beyond five innings in six starts this season.  In those six starts, he's gone exactly five innings four times, 4.2 innings once, and 2.2 innings once.  Especially when you consider what a sieve the bullpen with the big club has looked like so far this season, you'd like to think that Detwiler could pitch a little deeper into the game.  While the pitch count is factoring in, you have to think that Detwiler has labored a bit more (per inning) than he should have had to at this point. 

- While the walk rate has come down, it's still not great.  That's not the problem, though.  He hasn't been as strong with the groundball rate.  He currently sports a 1.00 GB/FB rate, which a pitcher of his talents can get away with for a while against AA opposition.  He'll need to keep the ball down a bit more in the majors if he's going to stick around (this time).

The Good

- I usually don't pay too much attention to ERA when dealing with minor league pitchers.  Some of the underlying factors (K:BB ratio, K:9 ratio, HR:9 ratio, GB:FB ratio) tend to be a lot more important, particularly when considering that most of the players at the level are in developmental stages.  That said, Detwiler's ERA (2.96) to this point is nothing to sneeze at.  His WHIP (1.41) wasn't really anything special. 

- His past two starts

May 6 vs. Erie - 5 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 0 R, 7 K

May 11 vs. Altoona - 5 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 1 R, 9 K

His overall numbers were stronger in his most recent start (a loss to Altoona... ironically, the Curve's parent team is the team that Detwiler will make his first major league start against, the Pittsburgh Pirates), but the Erie start is the one that makes me feel a little more confident that he's rounding the bend.  Why?  I brought up the second of the back to back starts against Reading above.  While Detwiler made a start in between, he was facing Erie for the second time in two weeks when he made the first of those past two starts.  After failing to get out of the fifth against them the first time, Detwiler seemed to be the one making adjustments and dominated the Seawolves.  Either way, his past two starts have consisted of a 0.90 ERA, a 0.72 WHIP, and a 16:1 strikeout to walk ratio. 

- He's cranked it up a bit with the strikeout production, and he's looked considerably more confident in attacking the zone as the season has worn on.  Again, both of these things have weighed heavily on his more recent (past few starts) performance.  The key thing here, though, is that it's not just a command and control issue.  It's a confidence issue.  As he seemed to change the mechanics on his delivery every 2-3 weeks last season, it could certainly have had a negative effect on his psyche.  Right now, he's showing the poise that led to him being drafted sixth overall a couple of years ago.  He doesn't look like he's out there hoping to retire hitters.  He's looking like he expects to.  Let's hope this doesn't get shattered with the quick call.

Is he up to stay?

Obviously, you would expect that how he performs will have a drastic impact on how long he stays with the big club.  Even when Olsen is ready to return, there's cleraly a chance that Cabrera has continued to implode before our very eyes.  The question regarding younger talent often centers around their arbitration clock.  While the virtual guarantee that the clock will start a year later is usually around the first of June, the late May call-up would make him a pretty safe bet not to become a super-two in a few years. 

I don't believe that the arbitration clock kicking in will be a factor, and I don't believe that Mike Rizzo wants to make him a merry-go-round type (i.e., going back and forth between the majors and minors).  You do that with guys at AAA that are expected to be stopgaps... not with one of your organization's top prospects. I get the feeling that Cabrera's continued struggles made Rizzo more confident in going with that top prospect rather than looking for said stopgap until Olsen is healthy.  It makes him more likely to stick at the big league level.

The raw stuff is there for him to succeed, which means his level of success could depend largely on how he maintains his confidence.  It sure didn't look to be there last season, which is the only reason that keeping him in the minors for a little while longer (so that he can continue to build that confidence) would have been the wiser course of action.  While I'd love to see what red hot Chief Craig Stammen could do in the majors, I think this is the right move, though.

We're nearing the quarter point of the season.  The Nats are 11-24.  Contention was never a reality.  Being competitive was possibly an option, but even that seems to be going out the window a bit. There are more than enough holes on the team so that it's probably time to look toward (yeah... I know... I'm skipping something here, aren't I?) 2011.  If everything breaks right, Detwiler should be the #3 starter behind he who shall not be named (until drafted) and Jordan Zimmermann in 2011.  He's going to take his lumps, but it's time to get that part out of the way.

A college pitcher out of Missouri State, Detwiler is 24 with roughly a season and a half of professional experience under his belt.  Much of the line of thinking behind taking a college pitcher instead of a high school pitcher has to do with the fact that they're going to ascend through the system more quickly.  They're also expected to be further along in their development.  This doesn't seem rushed.

While I certainly don't see Detwiler as anyone with future ace potential, I do see him slotting in as a middle of the rotation starter down the road.  There's going to be an adjustment period when he first reaches the majors regardless of whether he's up to stay now or whether he's up for a spot start or two and comes back in late August/early September.  If he's adequate (or, in layman's terms, several times better than Cabrera has been) and Cabrera is still pitching poorly, there's no reason to think that he should head back down to Harrisburg or Syracuse when Olsen returns.  There's always the chance that he gets lit up in his first big league start Monday and is replaced by Stammen (or Balester) immediately, but I don't see it happenning. 

Ross Detwiler is the latest silver lining in what has turned out to be a pretty woeful start to the season.  A native of St. Louis, Missouri (gotta give a shout out to my hometown... I can't imagine there are many of us [Nats fans] in the area), Detwiler was the sixth overall pick in the 2007 MLB Draft.  Entering the 2009 season, Detwiler was widely viewed as one of the top prospects in the Nats' system (#2 by Baseball America, #3 by Baseball Prospectus, #4 [B-] by John Sickels).  He'll make his first big league start at home on Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.


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