With pitchers and catchers due to report Sunday, we've reached the home stretch of the offseason. All week, we'll count down the five biggest storylines facing the Nationals at spring training. Today, it's storyline No. 2: How to turn a seven-man rotation into a five-man rotation...
The Nationals have held spring training battles to determine their No. 5 starter before. It's just that those competitions pitted the likes of Scott Olsen vs. Garrett Mock, or Jerome Williams vs. Jason Simontacchi.
This spring's battle, on the other hand, is unlike anything this franchise has ever seen before.
In one corner stands Chien-Ming Wang, a two-time 19-game winner for the Yankees and the AL Cy Young Award runner-up in 2006. In another corner stands John Lannan, the stalwart of the Nationals' rotation the last four seasons and last year's staff leader in wins, starts and innings pitched. And in still another corner stands Ross Detwiler, a former first-round draft pick who finally appeared to come into his own down the stretch in 2011.
Barring an injury or other unforeseen event, there's room for only one of them in the Opening Day rotation.
It makes for a fascinating storyline to an already compelling spring in Viera, and all signs suggest this won't be resolved until late-March.
When the Nationals surprisingly signed right-hander Edwin Jackson to a one-year, 11 million contract two weeks ago, speculation immediately turned toward the likelihood of a trade to remove at least one of those other starters from the equation (most likely Lannan).
But club sources have since indicated general manager Mike Rizzo prefers to wait a while before making any moves. Why? He doesn't want to trade away one starter now, only to have another get hurt during spring training and suddenly leave the team short-handed. He also wants to give other clubs a chance to experience their own pitching setbacks and perhaps create a more desperate market for rotation help in the final weeks leading into Opening Day.
Which isn't to say Rizzo wouldn't jump at a deal now if one of his counterparts makes an offer he can't refuse. The chances for such a deal, though, appear much likelier later in the spring.
So Nationals pitchers and catchers will report Sunday, at which point Wang, Lannan and Detwiler will see each other in the clubhouse, shake hands, wish each other well ... and then go out and try to beat their teammates in a hotly contested battle.
The competition may be portrayed as wide-open, with all three pitchers having equal opportunity to win the job, but that's really not the case. Wang does appear to have a significant leg up on the other two, for multiple reasons.
The veteran right-hander is out of options, so he can't be sent to the minors without first passing through waivers. His long and highly regimented warmup routine makes him a poor candidate for a long relief role. And he can't be traded until June 16, thanks to a little-known MLB rule that prevents clubs from dealing eligible free-agent players who were signed after electing free agency. (Wang signed a one-year, 4 million deal with the Nationals on Nov. 3, the first day of free agency. Had the club merely signed him one day earlier, before he was allowed to talk to other teams, the trading rule wouldn't apply.)
Detwiler, meanwhile, also is out of options after spending much of the last three seasons shuttling back and forth between Washington and Syracuse. The young left-hander has, however, spent some time pitching out of the bullpen and thus profiles well as a long reliever and emergency starter.
Which seems to make Lannan the likely odd man out, despite his 5 million salary and more reliable track record than his two competitors. (He's the only one of the three who has made 30 starts and posted an ERA under 4.00 in any of the last four seasons, and he's actually accomplished that three times during that span.)
The 27-year-old left-hander does have a minor-league option remaining, and though the thought of sending a 5 million pitcher who's not in need of mechanical work or building up innings in a low-pressure environment is highly uncommon, club sources have said it is something that will be considered.
More likely, Rizzo will spend the final weeks of camp listening to trade offers for Lannan, hoping someone puts together a package worthy of acceptance.
At the same time, the GM knows he's going to need far more than five starters over the course of a 162-game season. The Nationals have never used fewer than 11 starters in their seven seasons of existence.
They've also experienced plenty of spring training injuries over the years and will enter this camp with two starters recently removed from Tommy John surgery (Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann), another recently removed from major shoulder surgery (Wang) and another who missed half of 2010 following hip surgery (Detwiler).
So Rizzo figures to keep as many starters as he can on the roster as deep into March as he can, knowing well the situation may sort itself out.
And if not? Well, it could make for a tense final 10-to-14 days of spring training for a club that for the first time finds itself with too many qualified starting pitchers and limited options to sort this all out.