Nationals finalize their roster – Why was Olsen left out?

The Washington Nationals finalized their 25-man roster Saturday by optioning Scott Olsen and Roger Bernadina to Syracuse while re-assigning former closer Mike MacDougal and infielder Eric Bruntlett to minor-league camp. The club will wait to activate starting pitcher Livan Hernandez until his first scheduled start, and will instead carry eight relievers for the first week of the season. Among them are left-hander Jesse English and right-hander Tyler Walker, two relievers that were believed to have been vying for one spot left in the Nationals bullpen.

With all of the fielding starting positions locked up, and the one meaningless bullpen spot in limbo, one of the biggest surprises of the spring came Saturday as the Nationals announced that 26-year-old Garrett Mock would enter the 2010 season as the clubs fifth starter and not Scott Olsen.

Mock had all but locked up the position in the middle of March when he was named by the Nationals as the one pitcher outside of John Lannan and Jason Marquis who had made their case for the rotation. However since that time Mock has struggled more and more as the spring has gone by,  culminating in an abysmal performance in his last start which was considered his last tryout for the team. In that start Mock allowed five earned runs, and more importantly, seven walks. His spring ERA now stands at 5.79, where just several weeks ago it was between three and four.

What makes the selection all-the-more surprising is that Olsen, 26, had finally showed glimpses of the pitcher the Nationals had hoped he would be when they traded for him last year. After a very poor start to spring, Olsen has come on like gangbusters in his previous two starts, culminating in a dominating start over the Boston Red Sox on Friday where he allowed only one run, five hits, and struck out seven.

It would stand to reason that the club would weigh more heavily the starts that came later in the spring, rather than ones that came in the beginning. In early March most teams churn out line-ups that would likely have trouble beating triple-A clubs. The major league stars who are in the line-up aren’t in regular-season form yet, and often only make up a small portion of the line up. In late March, however, clubs boast their oppening day line-ups and players are fine-tuned and ready for the season to begin. Olsen’s start against the Red Sox was against what will pretty much me their opening day line up.

The Nationals disagree though. For them it appears that it came down to arm-strength and future potential.

Olsen, who has been in the major since he was 21, was once considered a potential ace or number two starter. His status has slipped over the years and some are left questioning if he can still make it as a major leaguer. Mock, who has no track record, has very good stuff and some think he could project to be a number three starter down the road.

Olsen is also coming off shoulder surgery and his arm is clearly not at one-hundred percent. The lefty claims that his arm is getting stronger, evidenced by his better performance as spring has gone on, but it appears the Nationals feel he can benefit from some time in Syracuse to further strengthen it. Mock on the other hand has the ability to throw a mid-90’s fastball and only needs to work on his control.

Starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang are expected to be in Washington by mid-to-late May, meaning that regardless of who was picked between Olsen and Mock, the winner will not have a long reign in the rotation. Mock has the potential to contribute in the future, so it makes some sense that he gets an early call-up and seasoning. But what confounds me is, if the Nationals were going to give the rotation spot to the prospect, and not the best pitcher, why not cut Olsen before Mar. 31 and save money by not paying his salary? Olsen may improve his arm strength, sure, but by the time that happens he will be leap-frogged by Wang, Strasburg, and eventually Detwiler and Zimmermann.