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April 25, 2011

On the Beat

Life Without Strasburg

by John Perrotto

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With Stephen Strasburg shelved until at least September, and probably for the season, after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery last September, the Nationals' starting pitching appeared to be suspect coming into this season. The lack of appealing rotation options caused many analysts to tab the Nationals for a fourth straight last-place finish in the National League East.

The Nationals, though, are off to a respectable 10-10 start, and starting pitching has been able to keep them afloat while the offense has struggled mightily in their first 20 games. Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis, and Tom Gorzelanny have gone at least five innings in all 20 games and allowed three earned runs or fewer in 16 starts. The rotation has a 3.74 ERA and is walking just 2.8 batters per nine innings, offsetting its modest 5.5 strikeouts per nine.

"I'm not going to say we're the Roy Halladays or the David Prices of the world, but we do have some good pitchers," Marquis said. "I've been around for awhile, and so have Livan and Gorzo. Guys like Lannan and Zim are young but they have a lot of talent. More than anything, we've become quality strike throwers. We're not messing around or dancing around the strike zone, we're attacking the zone. On top of it, we have a good defense, and that's important. We're a staff that pitches to contact. When the ball is put in play, there is a very good chance that the play is going to be made."

That is the exactly the way Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty wants his rotation to pitch. "If you don't have a bunch of guys throwing 95 mph and striking everyone out, you have to pitch smart and you can't nibble around the plate," McCatty said. "Our guys are doing that. They're not walking guys, and they're minimizing the damage."

The Nationals were 11th in the 16-team National League in ERA (4.13) and 12th with a 4.68 Fair Run Average last season. Strasburg ranked second on the team with 2.2 SNLVAR, despite pitching just 68 innings, before his elbow blew out. Only Hernandez (4.7) had a better year.

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman says any comparisons between last year's rotation and this season's version are almost invalid because of the health of the pitchers in 2010. Marquis missed three months after undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery to remove loose bodies, Zimmermann was coming back from Tommy John surgery, and Lannan battled a sore elbow.

"They're healthy, number one," Riggleman said. "Last year, we had two or three guys who weren't expressing that they had some discomfort. They tried to quietly pitch through it. They pretty much have that behind them now and are taking the ball every time out without feeling any pain. They are able to take their bullpen sessions between starts, keep their mechanics together, and are in a real good flow right now."

Zimmerman has the best stuff of anyone in the Nationals rotation, the only one who can routinely run his fastball over 90 mph. However, the rotation's unquestioned leader continues to be the ageless Hernandez, who made his 450th career start Saturday night. The 36-year-old Cuban defector has not missed a start since joining the Marlins rotation as a rookie midway through their 1997 World Series-winning season.

Hernandez's fastball rarely surpasses 85 mph, but he mixes it with a slider, curveball, and changeup and is 2-2 with a 3.48 ERA through five starts.

"Everyone says he doesn't have an average pitch, and that may be true," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "What he does have is outstanding command of all four pitches, and there aren't too many pitchers around baseball that you can say that about."

Hernandez's durability is what most impresses Riggleman. "That's unbelievable to make 450 straight starts," Riggleman said. "Guys get 30 to 32 starts a year, and my Frostburg State education tells me that's 320 in 10 years. Even at that, you're still 130 short of 450. That's amazing. The guy has never missed a start. It kind of rolls off your tongue and it goes in one ear and out the other, but it's really amazing."

Pardon the Nationals starters, though, if they feel getting some run support might be amazing. The Nationals hitters are averaging 4.05 runs a game with a puny .226/.307/.347 slash line.

"You hate to use the phrase all the time that it's early, but it is early," Riggleman said. "If you go through something like this in June or July, you don't really notice it as much. We've got a couple of guys who are just a tick off right now. They're going to be fine. They've always been good players and will continue to be good players. They are just a little out of sync right now."

The Nationals have been without injured third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (abdominal) the last two weeks. Furthermore, right fielder Jayson Werth, signed to a seven-year, $126 million contract as a free agent in December, is hitting .200/.286/.373 in 84 plate appearances.

"I'm trying to get my swing locked in," Werth said. "The technical aspect is sometimes hard to find but I feel we're working in the right direction. I'm making adjustments. I feel like I know what I need to do, and sometimes that's the biggest obstacle, figuring out what is wrong and going in that direction. I don't feel like I’m lost, and that's good. It's frustrating. It's not like I feel bad. I'm not seeing ball bad. I feel like I'm close. Hopefully, I'll lock it in soon and go on a tear. Really, we're in pretty good shape as a team, considering I haven't hit and most of the team hasn't hit, either."

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Rumors and Rumblings: Second baseman Chase Utley (knee) isn't close to being ready to go on a minor-league rehabilitation assignment, and there is some speculation he may not return to the Phillies lineup until after the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Phillies are so happy with Ben Francisco in right field that rookie Domonic Brown (hand), who is playing in extended spring training games, will likely be optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley once he comes off the disabled list. Manager Charlie Manuel is also considering going to a platoon in left field, with Raul Ibanez sitting against left-handed pitchers in favor of John Mayberry Jr. … Left-handers Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes will likely get the majority of save opportunities for the Rangers until closer Neftali Feliz (shoulder) is activated from the disabled list. … The new target date for White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy (lat) to come off the DL is May 8, as he is expected to make a rehab start Friday for either Triple-A Charlotte or Double-A Birmingham. … Los Angeles right-hander Joel Pineiro (shoulder) could return to the rotation as soon as Saturday, depending upon how well he pitches tonight in his rehab start for high-A Rancho Cucamonga. … Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz (intercostal) is still at least 10 days away from going out on a rehab assignment.

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Scouts' views:

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez: "He's looked lost at times, especially on breaking stuff, and he's pretty much an automatic out when he gets to two strikes. That being said, I wouldn't be too worried. He's young, he's got light-tower power, and he's a smart hitter. He'll figure it out and be just fine."

Yankees right-hander Bartolo Colon: "He doesn't throw 99 anymore, but he still has good command. If I'm the Yankees, though, I’m not counting on him for the long haul. He didn't pitch at all last year, and he's heavy, even by his standards. I really wonder how many innings they are going to get from him."

Cubs right-hander Matt Garza: "I know he's off to a slow start with his new team, but I wouldn't get down on him. He's a good pitcher with good stuff, and he is as competitive as any pitcher in the league. In fact, he probably needs to tone down his competitiveness, because he puts pressure on himself. When it's all said and done, the Cubs will be happy they traded for him."

Padres right-hander Aaron Harang: "He's really been rejuvenated by going to San Diego. That park is certainly a lot more forgiving than the one in Cincinnati, and he also looks like he's healthy again. You could tell he wasn't right the last couple of years, because his arm slot would keep dropping as the game went on."

Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez: "It seems like all everyone knows about him is that he's the guy who clotheslined Nyjer Morgan when the Marlins and Nationals had their big fight last year. This guy can hit, though. It seems like he hits everything hard to the gap, and he's starting to learn to turn on some pitches, too."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Jim Riggleman,  John Lannan

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