Earlier today, the Washington Nationals announced that they signed righty starter Chris Young to a minor-league deal, and he will report to Triple-A Syracuse after extended spring training. Young spent time in Nationals spring training before opting out of his spring contract. Signing a journeyman veteran pitcher to a minor league deal is usually not big news for a team like the Nats, who have the best pitching rotation in baseball. However, it is this time. While the Nats have some of the best five starters in the game, the sixth starter was a real problem without Young around.
The three leading candidates for the sixth starter spot inside the organization before the Young signing were, well, let’s just call them underwhelming: Yunesky Maya, Ross Ohlendorf, and Zach Duke.
Maya was signed to a four-year, $8 million deal in 2010, and I feel pretty confident in saying that it’s GM Mike Rizzo’s worst, and perhaps his only bad, signing to date. Maya has been pretty dreadful ever since signing with the team. In 2011, in 22 games started in Triple-A Syracuse, he posted a 5.00 ERA. In 2012, he spent the whole season with Syracuse and started 28 games posting a 3.88 ERA, but his 4.52 FIP tells the real story of his performance. He’s a low-velocity pitcher who has to be just about perfect to have success, and he’s very rarely perfect.
Ohlendorf actually had a cup of coffee with the Padres in 2012, and there wasn’t too much positive to draw from that, either. He had a 7.77 ERA and a better, but still not at all good, 4.90 FIP in nine starts and four relief appearances spanning 48.2 innings. He had even worse numbers in 2011 in nine starts with the Pirates: 8.15 ERA, 6.28 FIP.
Duke had some serious success after his call up in September last year, and it was good enough to earn himself a spot as the only lefty in the Nats bullpen for 2013. He will be the main long reliever, but it’s not usually the best idea to move guys around during the season without properly stretching them out. Not to mention, it would open a gap in the Nationals bullpen. Duke may be capable, but the Nats won’t want to remove him from his current role.
Young provides a veteran presence if a sixth starter is needed for a doubleheader or, in the worst case scenario, if one of the Nats’ starters get hurt. That’s not to say Young is the best pitcher in the world here, but he’s not too shabby for a number six starter who would slot into the five spot in case of an injury. In 20 starts with the Mets in 2012, he had a 4.15 ERA and 4.50 FIP. Great numbers? No, but his FIP at the major league level is marginally better than Maya posted in the minors last year, and it’s leagues better than Ohlendorf in the majors in each of the last two seasons.
Remember this: a sixth starter is never something for which you can truly plan. If the player is that good, he’s going to be on an MLB 25-man roster already. These are either veteran free agents who have nowhere else to go, like Young, or they’re prospects you don’t have room for on the big league club who are almost big league ready. Most teams aren’t lucky enough to have the latter available in their farm system, so they rely on guys like Chris Young. As far as sixth starters go, the Nationals have landed a pretty good option.