"It kind of makes me laugh when teams talk about they have too many starting pitchers," D.C. GM Mike Rizzo said during the last episode of 106.7 the FAN's The Mike Rizzo Show this past October, "That's always the statement in Spring Training, it's never the statement in September." These comments were made by Washington's general manager before the Nationals re-signed Chien-Ming Wang, and before the trade that brought Gio Gonzalez to the nation's capital.
"In our situation, we believe that we've got a good deep farm system, which is a good thing," Rizzo continued at the time, "but it takes eight or nine starting pitchers, really, to get through a major league season if we're going to perform at the highest level. We feel that we have that type of depth, finally, in the system, and Davey Johnson is a master at it and he's done it many, many times before and we'll expect him to do it again in 2012."
Even after the acquisition of Gonzalez, which cost the Nats four prospects, two of whom were expected to play a role at the major league level this season, Rizzo told reporters this week that the Nationals, "... feel good about ourselves. We feel confident that we're going to be a competitive club in a real tough division. We like all six of our rotation guys. We love the top three guys. We feel comfortable that we have depth in the rotation. We like our four and five guys and there's going to be good competition at several spots and we feel comfortable with our bullpen. We're not done with our bullpen. We're trying to improve ourselves in the rotation and in the bullpen and any other way we can."
As the general manager was talking about trying to improve Nats' rotation and pen (okay, maybe not at the exact moment, but the same day, this past Wednesday), 35-year-old veteran reliever Brad Lidge was taking a physical in advance of actually signing a one-year/$1M dollar+ deal with the Nationals after four years pitching with Washington's NL East rivals in Philadelphia. The signing addressed the Nats' stated need for a "veteran presence" in the bullpen to work with 24-year-old closer Drew Storen and 27-year-old set-up man Tyler Clippard and the rest of the Nats' relievers. As Rizzo pointed out in an interview with ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan, it also gives Davey Johnson another closer option since, as Rizzo explained, the manager does like to use two bullpens:
"Brad is an All-Star caliber pitcher, and a veteran presence, so he's going to help us. And you know Davey [Johnson], Davey uses a bullpen, he's got his A, B bullpen and they're will be plenty of games for Brad to pitch in at the end of it and he knows his role and he's really going to grab this thing and be a mentor to our staff."
Now about that starter? What starter? Rizzo did say "We're trying to improve ourselves in the rotation...," on the same day he was introducing left-hander Gio Gonzalez to the nation's capital. That night, FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal mentioned the Nationals as one of five or six clubs who "remain" interested in 34-year-old free agent right-hander Roy Oswalt. "The Nationals," Mr. Rosenthal wrote, "even after acquiring left-hander Gio Gonzalez, value Oswalt’s veteran presence and stuff." Rumors of the Nats' interest in Oswalt surfaced earlier this winter, but always with the caveat that Washington wasn't willing to give the veteran who was limited to 23 starts last year by back issues, anything more than a one-year deal.
Why are the Nationals still looking for a starter? One possibility, the Nats' front office actually does think they can contend this year and has decided to plan ahead for something Nats fans are having a hard time accepting as inevitable. Stephen Strasburg will be shut down when he reaches his innings-limit in the first full-year back from Tommy John surgery. If the Nationals have another plan for the '09 1st Round pick in 2012, one that will keep him a viable option for potentially "meaningful" late-season games, it will contradict all they've said publicly this winter, and what the general manager reiterated once again Wednesday afternoon during the ESPN980 interview:
Mike Rizzo: "Well, someone will pitch those meaningful innings in September. That's why we've created depth in our starting rotation. We feel we've got good depth. We've got guys that are capable major league innings that could take the brunt of those innings when we shut Stras down. We're going to do what's best for Stephen Strasburg long-term, because what's best for Stephen Strasburg is best for the Washington Nationals. And we protect our young assets and our young players, because they have, Stephen's got a long career ahead of him and I don't want to be the guy to throw a wrench into that.
"He's an incredible kid and he will want the ball and take the ball, and may fight me when we make this decision, but it will be the prudent decision to make and one that will be made."
Pressed on the issue, and asked if Strasburg could conceivably return in October if he's shut down early, could he return late in the season for a hypothetical playoff run? "To shut him down for that length of time," the GM explained, "Would mean to almost have another Spring Training to ramp him back up to pitch towards the end of the season. And it's just too important a decision. I hope we're making that tough decision in September, that would be good, but the decision [has] already been made in my mind and we'll stick to it. And like this year with Jordan Zimmermann, it didn't make everybody happy, but I thought it was the right move, and I think that the move with Stras will be the right move also and probably won't make a lot of people happy either."
Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, Tom Gorzelanny, Yunesky Maya, Craig Stammen? That's nine starters (seven if you leave out Stammen/Gorzelanny as pen-bound), one that's pitched 200+ innings twice in his four-year career, two of whom are coming off partial seasons in which they returned from injury, one of whom will be in his second year back from Tommy John surgery, one whose relative success is a mystery to many who examine what he does on the mound, one more who's a 1st Round pick that hasn't yet made his mark in the majors and has no more options, one international signing who hasn't been what was expected and two pitchers who've moved back and forth between the bullpen and rotation the last several years without settling into either role permanently.
Do the Nationals still need to add a Brad Lidge-like veteran presence to the starting rotation, just in case they actually end up competing? Should they wait til later this summer and see where they stand? Will it be another former-Phillie? Is there an up-and-coming or recently-drafted Nationals' pitching prospect you think could end up in D.C. late this season?