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Did the Nationals Choose the Wrong Fifth Starter?

On March 15th, Chien-Ming Wang injured himself once again after taking an awkward tumble to first base trying to beat out Russell Martin. Although he was seen at the time as the favorite for the fifth starter spot, he was removed from the discussion shortly after being diagnosed with a strained left hamstring.  About a week ago, manager Davey Johnson finally cleared up the speculation behind the competition for that fifth spot between the two remaining competitors: John Lannan and Ross Detwiler.  On March 26th, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reported that when Johnson was asked who would start the season in the fifth spot, he replied, “John’s my guy,” despite enduring trade rumors including Lannan.  Although he has his legitimate reasons for his choice, it’s possible he made the wrong one.

Lannan is coming off the best season of his career.  He pitched 184.2 innings with a 3.70 ERA and a 1.462 WHIP, while winning 10 games for the first time.  In past years, this would have been qualified him for the third spot in the rotation, but with the addition of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, space in the lineup has been cramped.  Going into Spring Training, the competition for the final spot was stiff, and the media reported on it constantly, but Lannan did not perform like he was fighting for a spot.  He actually has had the worst spring training of his career so far with a 5.14 ERA in four starts and two long relief appearances.

Detwiler actually has performed better than Lannan this spring training, but he has not reaped the rewards of a starting position.  In 16.2 innings pitched, he has only allowed six earned runs in five long relief appearances and one spot start.  In that one start, he went five complete innings allowing only one run along with seven strikeouts.  Detwiler is also coming off a career year after posting a 3.00 ERA and 1.258 WHIP with four wins and five losses in 10 starts and 15 appearances.  The in four of his five losses though, he held teams to an average of 2.25 runs per games.  Based on both these performances, the fans have to wonder why Johnson picked Lannan.

The one of the first possible reasons has to be experience.  While the young Detwiler has pitched in 39 games and 172.1 innings, Lannan has pitched in 128 games and 751 innings including two Opening Day starts.  The second is consistency.  In Lannan’s last four seasons with the Nationals, he has had three sub 4.00 ERA seasons and averages close to 180 innings a season.  Detwiler on the other hand has been up and down with his stats in the majors and the minors mainly because of injuries. Lastly, the only position that really does not have much major league depth for the Nationals is the long reliever position.  Detwiler has proven himself to be the best the Nationals have and Johnson needs him in that spot along with the always-unpredictable Tom Gorzelanny.

Personally, I only see the last of those three reasons as completely viable towards making Lannan the fifth starter.  If there was depth at the long reliever position, I believe Detwiler would be the fifth starter come Opening Day because of his performance this spring.  Moreover the benefits he brings to the team if he pitches the same as he did at the end of last year would be significant.  In this case the risk would be worth the reward, because it would not be hard for Detwiler to at least match an average Lannan season.  Johnson did not make the wrong decision in this situation, but if the Nationals had two long relievers that could put together decent seasons, his decision may have been different.

About Joe Drugan

Managing editor of The Nats Blog and co-host of the Nats Talk On The Go podcast.

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