Rotation set, but concerns linger
Health, inexperience key issues facing Nats' starting five
VIERA, Fla. -- The Nationals had 36 healthy pitchers in camp, and they were looking for four starters to follow right-hander John Patterson in the rotation. It appeared it would be a tough task, as there wasn't much experience among the candidates. Turns out, though, it wasn't that hard to find.
Matt Chico and Shawn Hill established themselves early in the camp and won spots in the rotation. Right-hander Jerome Williams won a spot, beating out several candidates including Tim Redding and Joel Hanrahan, while Levale Speigner will be the swingman of the staff. Jason Bergmann most likely will be the fifth man in rotation.
"It's seems that the group of guys that have been put on the staff seem to be very competitive. That's really good," Patterson said. "They aren't scared to go out there and compete every day."
But there are two concerns regarding this starting staff, and they could come back to haunt the Nationals down the road. The biggest question is health. Patterson and Hill have proven they are talented pitchers but they have had serious health issues in the past. The team received the news that Jason Simontacchi will miss the start of the season because of a tight right groin. He could be out two to three weeks.
The biggest question is health. Patterson and Hill have proven they are talented pitchers, but they have had serious health issues in the past. The team received the news that Jason Simontacchi will miss a start this spring because of a tight right groin. He could be out two to three weeks.
"I don't think we can afford to get hurt," Patterson said. "I'm not talking about a small stint on the DL. I'm talking about big injuries for half the season. I think that would definitely put us in a hole."
Putting the team in a deep hole is something general manager Jim Bowden is trying to avoid. He recently signed Pedro Astacio to a Minor League deal in case a pitcher gets hurt. He didn't want to have to rely on one of their prospects, such as right-hander Collin Balester.
"We are happy with the performance of a lot of pitchers in camp, but we don't have a lot of depth," Bowden said. "We don't want to get into a position where we are forced to rush a Collin Balester before he's ready. That's a little concern for us right now."
Then there's the experience factor with Chico and Speigner. Neither has pitched in the Major Leagues, and they are bound to take their lumps this season.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Chico has not pitched above Double-A and has yet to surpass 153 1/3 innings. That does not seem to matter to manager Manny Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire. They constantly talk about how Chico doesn't rely on just his fastball when he is in trouble and how he is not intimidated by big-league hitters.
"He's a gamer. He is not afraid of contact. He has very good composure out there," St. Claire said. "He is relaxed at what he is doing. It doesn't matter what hitter is stepping [to] the plate. You don't see him change his delivery because he has to face Miguel Cabrera. That's a sign of maturity, that he trusts his stuff. It's about executing pitches."
Bowden told Speigner that he has never had success with a Rule 5 Draft pick. That may change, because Speigner has been outstanding this spring, having allowed just four earned runs over 14 innings. His best role seems to be as a reliever.
Speigner has never had an ERA above 4.00 in that role in four professional seasons. He has pitched one season as a starter, and was a combined 6-11 with a 4.29 ERA for New Britain and Rochester in 2005. But those numbers don't seem to bother the Nationals. Speigner has a fastball that ranges from 90-95 mph, and his curveball is his out pitch.
"I think the last time I started, with the Twins, I got comfortable with the role," Speigner said. "I had a rough first half and had a better second half. That's all I can look back on, and that is to try remember the success I had as a starter and try to repeat that."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.