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A Lot Can Change In A Week In The Washington Nationals' Rotation

Washington Nationals' skipper Davey Johnson has been faced with tough decisions this season when it comes to the the fifth spot in the Nats' rotation. He made another tough one this week.

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"Circumstances over the winter made it much more competitive out there," Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson explained this past April as he announced that 27-year-old left-hander John Lannan had been optioned to Triple-A Syracuse to start the 2012 campaign after five seasons as part of the Nats' starting rotation. 26-year-old '07 1st Round pick Ross Detwiler, who pitched out of the bullpen last year but finished the 2011 season strong after returning to the starting rotation, had outperformed Lannan in Spring Training in the Nationals' skipper's opinion, giving up 14 hits, seven runs, six earned and five walks in 17.1 IP (mostly out of the pen) in which he'd struck out 18. Lannan made four starts and six total appearances this Spring, surrendering 24 hits, 14 runs, 12 earned and six walks in 21.0 IP over which he'd K'd 16.

After Chien-Ming Wang suffered a hamstring injury in mid-March which guaranteed that the right-hander would start the season on the DL, most assumed Lannan would take his place as the Nats' no.5 starter. Lannan's name had been bandied about in the press, with rumors that the Nationals were shopping the lefty around the league popping up from the moment he lost his arbitration case on the day that Washington signed veteran free agent right-hander Edwin Jackson. The $5M dollars Lannan's making this season has been talked about most often as the stumbling block in any rumored deal with opposing teams, who were reportedly unwilling to part with much in return while taking on Lannan's salary. "Good thing the Nationals hadn't dealt Lannan," the thinking went after Wang's injury. "You can never have enough pitching," the baseball maxim says. The problem for Lannan in the nation's capital, was that the Nationals didn't feel the left-hander was well-suited for work out of the pen.

Ross Detwiler had proven capable of performing out of the pen and had no options remaining, and both factors played a role in the Nationals' decision to option Lannan to Triple-A. "[We] don't want to lose [Lannan] and I don't want to put him in a situation that he isn't comfortable in," Johnson explained to reporters while acknowledging how tough the decision was. "It's not a good option," the manager said, "but it's the best one out there." What made the situation especially uncomfortable, was the fact that Davey Johnson, just a week before, as the Washington Times' Amanda Comak reported, had annointed Lannan his fifth starter publicly.

"'John's my guy,'" the 69-year-old manager entering his 16th season on a major league bench told the Times' Ms. Comak, "I like John. And John can pitch... I don't know that Lannan has even relieved in his career. So it's not something I'm going to even entertain.'" When the Nationals opted for Detwiler instead of Lannan, the veteran lefty's inability to work out of the pen was cited again by the Nats' skipper. Johnson said that the decision was, "... really more about Ross Detwiler. Ross did a good job last year also in the rotation. He's had an outstanding Spring. There's probably going three or four starts before Chien-Ming [Wang] comes back," and Lannan, Johnson said, "... is not really suited to pitch out of the pen. He also had an option and [we want] to keep all of our quality pitchers in house. Very difficult decision. Tough one."

"I respect and like John Lannan a lot," Johnson explained, but, "it's really about giving Detwiler an opportunity to get a few starts in before Chien-Ming comes back and [retaining] John Lannan in case there's any other hiccups in the rotation. It was a tough day and not the way I like to end up Spring Training." Lannan went to Triple-A Syracuse, where he's underperformed thus far, with a 6.12 ERA, 5.38 FIP, 19 walks (3.70 BB/9) and 26 K's (5.17 K/9) in nine starts and 50.0 IP. Though Johnson clearly stated that Detwiler was being given an opportunity to get starts in while Wang was out, after the left-hander performed well early this year, some wondered what would happen when Wang returned.

Detwiler had a (3-1) record, 1.59 ERA, nine runs (five earned), nine walks (2.86 BB/9) and two home runs allowed in his first five starts and 28.1 IP this season, over which he'd K'd 21 (6.67 K/9). However, before his most-recent start this past Friday, the lefty had struggled, going (0-2) and surrendering 23 hits, 14 runs (13 earned) for a 7.31 ERA with two walks (1.13 K/9) and two home runs allowed in three starts and 16.0 IP in which he'd K'd 10 (5.63 K/9). In spite of his recent struggles, Johnson told reporters last weekend that when Wang returned the two-time 19-game winner with the Yankees would pitch out of the bullpen, since Detwiler had proven he belonged in the starting rotation.

"Detwiler has pitched himself into a role as one of the real main guys for not only this year, but for the future here," Johnson told reporters, and therefore, when Wang returned, the manager said he would work out of the pen, though his surgically-repaired right shoulder and the time it took the seven-year veteran to get loose made it a less than ideal situation. "There's no easy choice," Johnson said, but he'd made his decision, and announced, "I will probably, when [Wang] comes up, I will probably start him in the bullpen. It's probably the easiest no-decision. But I don't look at him as a reliever. I look at him as a quality major league starter."

A week after those comments, however, and after Detwiler had another tough outing, throwing 100 pitches in 4.1 IP in which he gave up five hits, four walks and three runs Friday night against the Braves, Johnson had his second change of heart when it comes to his rotation. When he'd named Detwiler the team's fifth starter, the manager told reporters, "I think Chien-Ming Wang's going to come back and be outstanding," but in choosing Detwiler over Lannan, he said he couldn't ignore the message Detwiler's performance was sending. "It's kind of part of development," Johnson said, "When a guy's screaming, 'I'm ready,' I had a change of heart."

In announcing at the end of Spring Training that he was going with Detwiler over Lannan, Davey Johnson said that, "The best thing for the organization, today as well as tomorrow is for Ross Detwiler to get the opportunity to start." In announcing on Saturday that he'd decided to move Detwiler back to the bullpen with Wang taking over in the rotation, Johnson told reporters, including the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, much the same, explaining that, "'It’s a tough decision, but I think it’s best for the whole ball club.'"

Lannan wrote to Nats beat reporters after he was optioned to Triple-A to let them know he'd requested a trade. Detwiler reportedly didn't take the news well either, with the WaPost's Mr. Kilgore writing, "Detwiler took the news hard, Johnson said, 'and I want him to take it that way.'" Detwiler will work out of the bullpen now, but a return to the rotation is likely in the left-hander's future. Like Lannan, Wang wasn't suited for a role in the bullpen. What opened up an opportunity for Ross Detwiler this Spring cost him an opportunity to keep starting this week.