Nats see Lannan as valuable arm in stable

Nats see Lannan as valuable arm in stable

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Victories haven't accumulated as quickly or to the degree he would have chosen. Nine in 2008 and 2009, eight the following season and 10 last year. Losses have come with greater frequency, and they have overflowed at times.

John Lannan, though, has pitched only for the Nationals. Winning records have been uncommon throughout the organization. Lannan was the best they had, their Opening Day starter in 2009 and 2010. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. He's been that man.

These days, the Nationals' vision has improved dramatically. Even on overcast days in D.C., they can see the Capitol from the upper deck at Nationals Park. And on a clear day, they can see a rotation that unsettles their opponents, wins regularly and probably excludes Lannan.

It might happen this year, it might not. It might not happen at all. But the circumstances this spring are quite different from those Lannan experienced when job security was in his locker and his name was on the manager's lips.

It's crowded there these days -- Lannan, yes, but also Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang. Maybe even Tom Gorzelanny.

"Every camp is competitive," Lannan said. "But we've never had the pedigree here we have now. There's so much depth."

The depth is such that this 6-foot-5, 27-year-old left-handed veteran of four-plus seasons may be over his head. Lannan says he sees nothing of the sort.

"I haven't heard anything from anyone in the organization," he said. But rarely is there any sort of heads-up, especially at this time of year when many clubs are just realizing their pitching is runway-model thin. If Lannan has in his head in the sand, so be it. No reason to fret much. His salary arbitration award -- he lost -- set his 2012 pay at $5 million. That figure travels with him, so finances are not an issue.

He began his quest to remain part of the Nationals' seemingly bright future Monday when he pitched three innings against the Mets in what became his team's first victory in three Spring Training games. The Nationals won, 3-1. The first two batters he faced produced a run -- Andres Torres walked, stole second base and scored on a single through the middle by Daniel Murphy. Lannan faced 10 more batters, one reached base.

The Nationals, of course, are making no judgments based on three innings in the first week of March. Just the same, Lannan wanted to pitch as well as possible; first impressions and all that. Management knows him well, he's not about to surprise general manager Mike Rizzo, skipper Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty. But he can strive to reaffirm their opinions, which seem mostly positive.

"He has good stuff. He pitched as a 1 and as a 2," Johnson said. "He's had some blueprint starts. And we have to beat Atlanta and Philadelphia. Both of them have a lot of left-handed hitting."

But Gonzalez, Detwiller and Gorzelanny are left-handed as well. And three of the right-handed pitchers -- Strasburg, Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson -- are likely to be in the season-opening rotation.

"I know it looks like we have too much pitching," Rizzo said. "It looks that way on February 15 and 29 and March 5. But it can look a lot different June 5."

Johnson recalled a time -- it was 1988 -- when his Mets team had one too many starters. Bobby Ojeda was sentenced to the bullpen. But, as Johnson pointed out, "he still made 30 starts."

Correction: a mere 29.

Neither manager nor GM seems inclined to trade at this juncture. But the Nationals could address other needs if they were to deal one of their starters. As Johnson spoke Monday night, he made points the club probably didn't make in the arbitration hearing.

"We were in the bottom of the league in runs. And our bullpen wasn't very good until we improved last year. He could have won a lot more games if we were just average in those areas."

Or perhaps the manager was advertising. Lannan might be the No. 5 starter if he stays. Other clubs with less pitching prowess might see him as a No. 4. After all, Lannan's ERA has been lower than 4.00 three times in his four seasons. It was 3.70 last season, when he produced a 10-13 record, made 33 starts and pitched 184 1/3 innings. He'd like to be more of an innings eater. But pitching to that total for a better team might produce more victories.

The Pirates have lost their No. 1, A.J. Burnett. How do they regard Lannan? Do they have enough left-handed starting pitching? Wouldn't the Mets consider Lannan an upgrade?

Johnson likes Lannan's makeup and believes a rotation ought to have at least one grinder type. That would be Lannan. And veteran pitchers who have a sense of how to win on days when they've been abandoned by the best stuff are particularly welcome when other members of the rotation are relatively young.

"John Lannan," Rizzo said, "knows how to give himself a chance to win. He can make a pitch when he has to. That's what he did [Monday against the Mets]. Those three innings were a microcosm of what he does."

Maybe Rizzo was advertising. Maybe he'wasn't. And everyone knows sometimes the best trades are the ones that aren't made.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.