Who Are These Guys?

In December, I looked at the awe-inspiring mediocrity of the Washington Nationals’ projected starting rotation. Back then, I figured the front five would consist of John Patterson, Michael O’Connor, Shawn Hill, Tim Redding, and an as-yet-unnamed free agent.

Well, O’Connor isn’t ready to make his first start, and Jim Bowden never signed that free agent (unless you count minor league free agents), but the team brought more potential starters to camp than the rest of the division combined. The rotation is still far from set, but some new faces have emerged, and it keeps getting weirder. It’s time to take a look at just who is going to get the Nationals into the fifth or sixth inning (they hope) 162 times this year.

1. John Patterson

Even his friends have taken to calling him “the only Nats starter fantasy players care about.” What’s too bad for Washington (and, I suppose, Patterson too) is that, just because he’s the best this staff to offer doesn’t mean he’s all that good. He’s generally expected to be the horse of the rotation, which is an odd weight to put on the shoulders of someone who has topped 100 MLB innings in exactly one year.

On the happy side: that one year was 2005, and he was pretty darn good during it. The Nats offense ensured that his won-loss record wouldn’t do him any favors in arbitration hearings, but he did throw 198 innings of 127 ball, placing in the National League top ten in ERA, ERA+, strikeouts and (thank you, baseball-reference.com) shutouts.

Were it reasonable to expect a return to 2005 form, I’d be comfortable figuring that Patterson will be among the top tier of NL starting pitchers. As it is, Manny Acta will be lucky if he gets anywhere close to 30 starts from this guy, which is bad news when your #6 starter may be whoever the Royals next put on waivers.

2. Shawn Hill

This time last year, I would’ve bet a lot of money I’d never be typing the headline “2. Shawn Hill.” “4. Shawn Hill?” Sure. “DFA’d: Shawn Hill?” Possible. Hill was about league-average in a half-dozen starts last year, and has spent plenty of time of prospect lists (admittedly, the team-specific ones). Since hitting the New York-Penn League in 2001, Hill hasn’t had an ERA over 3.60 in any stop, and made 20+ starts each year from 2002 to 2004. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that 2005 was lost to injury. The more dangerous bad news is that he hasn’t posted a strikeout rate over six since 2002, when he was pitching in the Midwest League. His home run and walk numbers are encouraging, but then again, when you’re looking for reasons for optimism in three separate spells in Harrisburg, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that Hill can’t be a solid major league starter. Perhaps he can be. But he’s the sort of guy a good team would be starting out in Triple-A, ready to call up if he puts together another six to 10 good outings. The Nats, of course, don’t have that luxury: Hill was basically guaranteed a spot by showing up to Spring Training, staying healthy, and not failing a breathalyzer.

3. Matt Chico

This is where things start to get weird. Before looking at Washington’s #3 starter, I have to digress a little bit: I’m going to be rooting for this team. (Except when they play the Brewers.) As I wrote in my first Nats column last fall, the sheer chutzpah of handing the entire starting rotation to the winners of a high-school-style tryout is awe-inspiring. I don’t mean to say that this is how it should be done, exactly, but for all the fans (statheads are especially guilty of this, I think) who want to see marginal prospects in the majors at the first sign they might be able to hang with the big kids, Jim Bowden is now a hero.

Back to Chico. He was a dark horse opening camp, which is to say that his track record is even weaker than Tim Redding’s. (NL East offenses: start your engines.) Chico arrived in the midseason trade last year that sent Livan Hernandez to Arizona; I would imagine the presence of former Diamondbacks exec Mike Rizzo in the Nationals front office had something to do with that. I don’t know how ready Chico is, but of all the guys in this group after Patterson, he probably has the best shot to turn into something useful. After being bombed the first time around the league, anyway.

Chico has never pitched above double-A, though he did impress at that level both before and after the trade. In 13 starts at Tennessee, he had a 2.22 ERA supported by 7 K’s per nine innings (low for him, incidentally) and a home run about every twelve innings. PECOTA and ZiPS are both somewhat optimistic; PECOTA puts his ERA a bit above 5.00, while ZiPS is more positive still, giving him a 4.63 mark. Even if he matches the higher of those numbers, it’ll be a successful year for the young starter. After all, in about 27 other organizations, he wouldn’t even have a shot at the major-league staff until September.

4. Jerome Williams

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who used to think that Jerome Williams was going to be good, and those who haven’t the foggiest idea who Jerome Williams is. I’m sure that doesn’t quite cover everybody, but it does seem roughly accurate. Williams was never a premium prospect, but he was a scout favorite as he came up through the Giants system a few years ago.

Since then, he’s established himself as the definition of a Quad-A pitcher: the ability to dominate in the minors (at age 20, he managed a 3.59 ERA in triple-A Fresno) but lots of unfulfilled potential at the next level. Williams has actually had some unheralded success in the National League: his ERA+ didn’t fall below 100 in his first three big-league seasons. But he hasn’t built on his early success, leaving him as a fifth starter candidate for the Nationals.

But, like nearly everybody else in this discussion, Williams is still young. He started his professional career when he was 17, and he just turned 25 last December. While I wouldn’t stake my rent money on it, he could well have the best season of the five guys who broke camp in the rotation.

5. Jason Bergmann

While Chico is the biggest stretch based on readiness, Bergmann might be the oddest choice based on his recent performance. He spent much of 2006 with the big club, yet only started six games. (And the Nats certainly went through their starters last year.) He wasn’t good in either role; the best you can say about him is that he’s young. I suppose the other good thing you can say about him is that his performance last year was better starting than relieving; if most pitchers have about a one run gap in ERA between the two roles, Bergmann may actually be suited for the job.

In the minors, anyway. It’s all well and good that he excelled starting his own games, but we’re talking about ERAs of 6.46 and 6.88. ERA may be of limited usefulness, but when the number starts with a six, that’s all the usefulness I need.

Somewhat surprisingly, PECOTA and ZiPS like Bergmann just about as much as they do Chico. I would imagine that’s based on his strong strikeout rates in the minors (and in Washington in 2005)—his career rate is eight punchouts per nine frames. That’s quite good for a starter, but it’s easy to get too excited about: his best years (in which he topped one strikeout per inning) were in relief, where it’s easier to throw hard for the shorter outing. When he was a full-time starter in the low minors, he only had one year with a strikeout rate much above seven per nine innings. That’s still solid, but we are talking about the Sally League here.

6 and Beyond

When a rotation is fronted by the likes and Patterson and Hill, it’s a foregone conclusion that the list will expand as the season goes on. When Michael O’Connor gets healthy, he ought to displace whoever is struggling the most. The same story applies to Jason Simontacchi, who is briefly sidelined but had a job all but locked up a few weeks ago.

Even with those two pitchers likely to return to the majors at some point in the first half, the Columbus starting rotation will probably remain a feeder for the occasional spot start. Tim Redding may claim a job at some point, while Billy Traber could make an appearance, as well. And as the Ben Hendricksons of the world appear on waivers throughout the season, you’d have to imagine the Nats will use their high priority to add quality depth where there currently isn’t any.

Whoever Jim Bowden finds to send out there, I’ll be rooting for them. Nothing like a 5-12, 4.94 season from a #2 starter to get the Washington fans excited about their hometown team.

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