Over the last several years, Washington Nationals fans have had to delude themselves over bargain basement prospects and pitching options we thought could help make the extra difference in each season. For every former prospect like Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, there were also pipedream future aces like Matt Chico and Shawn Hill. Each player was a Jim Bowden special, meaning if you watched them for long enough you could see the glimmer of hope that originally caught a scouts eye, but for each time had proven that there just wasn’t enough there to make a career. They were all buying time, and the Nationals were paying.
For the first time ever though, it seems that the teams once compiled on nothing but hopes and dreams are in our rearview, and that the young men on the Nationals roster today are real certified prospects with actual talent. They are young, and most of them have no more than two Major League seasons under their belt, and they have a long way to go. Talent does not always pan out either, mental blocks and poor work ethic can get in the way, but for the first time ever you can say that these players honestly have the chance to be something. It’s just a chance, but it’s one we have never truly had in Washington.
A real highlight over the past several weeks has been the opportunity to see the Nationals’ young starters come into their own at the Major League level. Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock, Stephen Strasburg and even Ross Detwiler have shown over the past few weeks the talent that have made them some of the better prospects in the team’s farm system. Unfortunately, there are only so many rotation spots, and each of these guys will be battling it out in spring training for a chance to start the season with the team.
Here is how I think it will pan out for these players over the next several months:
Ross Detwiler – Detwiler was a product of Jim Bowden, a former first round pick who, despite some flashes, has failed to live up to his top ten pick stigma. At only 25 though, this lefty has put up some good numbers in 14 appearances with Washington this season. While working both as a starter and out of the pen, Detwiler is 3-5 with a 3.30 ERA. He has only struck out 37 batters in 60 innings pitched, but as a crafty lefty he is able to get by without blowing batters away. His FIP (fielder independent pitching) shows that his low ERA may be an apparition, but that has also incorrectly been the rap on John Lannan for years.
Bottom Line: Rizzo likely has the least invested in Detwiler because he was a pick of the old regime, his age has stripped him of his prospect status, and he has been given several opportunities before. Nevertheless he will be given the opportunity to earn a starting spot out of spring training, and if he fails he will likely become a long reliever. He must work on his conditioning, most notably in his legs to improve his endurance. His velocity is up this season over last years, showing he is likely fully recovered from his hip surgery that set him back after a promising 2009 call up.
Tommy Milone – Milone was also drafted by Jim Bowden, but the former 10th round pick has flourished in Mike Rizzo’s minor league system. The 24-year-old has been very strong in his first four major league starts after finishing up a tremendous year in Syracuse. Despite a first start that saw him get touched up for four earned runs in 4.1 innings pitched against the New York Mets in early September, the lefty has seemed to find his stride over his last two starts, allowing just one earned run in 11.2 innings pitched against the Mets and the Phillies. Milone, a true strike thrower, has defied skeptics for the last few seasons, but his final test is whether or not he can get it done at the Major League level. With a fastball that sits at just 88, he will need to prove that he is smart enough to get the best batters in the world out, consistently.
Bottom Line: Milone is what I consider a bonus prospect. He was never supposed to be here, and quite frankly, some are still baffled as to how he is. Considering he will be 25 come next spring, the Nationals will almost certainly give him a shot in the rotation at the start of next season to prove he can produce the way he did in Triple-A at the top level. If he can’t, well then we are likely to see him go the way of Matt Chico and Shairon Martis. If he can make outs consistently in the MLB level, he could be a solid No. 4 starter for the team for years to come.
Brad Peacock – Peackock is an enigma. The former 41st round draft pick has pitched like one for four minor league seasons, only posting one ERA below three, and that was at age 19 in a 13 game stint in Rookie Ball. In 2011 everything changed, and the hard throwing right hander quickly turned into one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. It’s still not entirely clear what forced that change, but the result was a 15-3 record with a 2.39 ERA and 177 strikeouts in 146.2 innings pitched in 23 starts in between Harrisburg and Syracuse this season. His success has carried over to the MLB, in his first two starts he has pitched 10.2 shutout innings allowing just three hits.
Bottom Line: Peacock’s ascension has been incredible. His numbers indicate that he isn’t getting lucky either, but rather that his stuff is as good as it seems. He will certainly be given a chance to make the team’s starting rotation out of camp, but knowing Rizzo I would be surprised if he didn’t give Peacock more time to develop at the Triple-A level. His situation reminds me a great deal of Jordan Zimmermann’s in 2009. Zimemrmann had a great minor league season in 2008, and an even better Spring Training, but the Nats kept him in Triple A until July to make sure he was absolutely ready. It seems that move paid off.
Stephen Strasburg: Somehow, Stephen Strasburg has exceeded expectations in his comeback from Tommy John surgery. Most pitchers have an adjustment period after such a massive reconstruction of their game, and a year layoff, but Strasburg has seemed to instantly return to his dominant ways. His endurance and his velocity still fluctuate from night to night, but if he puts as much work into his offseason conditioning this winter as he did in his recovery he will come back and contend for the National League Cy Young next year.
Bottom Line: There’s no question that Strasburg will be the National’s ace next year, he could very well be the best pitcher in baseball. The only issue is that he will be on a strict innings limit, likely similar to the one that Jordan Zimmermann was on in 2011. For Jay-Z, it wasn’t as big of an issue because the Nationals were not in contention this year, so when he was forced to the sideline, its impact was rather minimal. Next year though the Nationals hope to compete, and losing Strasburg in late August would be devastating. While it hasn’t been talked about, it might be wise for the Nats to consider having Strasburg start the season late, perhaps in early June. That way, if needed, he’d be able to pitch into October. If not needed, at least the Nats fans would have something to look forward to in September.