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RAUCH READY FOR ROTATION, GUILLEN OFFERED ARBITRATION

[December 2nd] -- Stan Kasten was on "XM Tonight" with Ronnie Lane Friday night. When asked what the team's most glaring need was, Kasten laughed and said, "When it comes to our farm system and starting pitching, we're pretty much the bottom of the barrel."

And right he is, particularly when it comes to starting pitching. He said that he doubted that the pitching situation would be addressed next week, and it's likely that it won't be finalized until January or February.

Conventional wisdom says that the Nationals have one major league caliber starting pitcher, John Patterson. The rest of the group of hopefuls, Mike O'Connor, Shawn Hill and Beltran Perez have all shown potential but not the ability to translate that potential into a slot in the starting rotation. Tim Redding could end up as a starter, and the team may yet bring back Ramon Ortiz as their number five starter. But the one player who has the ability to be a solid starter has never been given the chance to show what he can do.

Don't blame the Nationals, it's the players' decision.

For the last two years, Frank Robinson had talked to reliever Jon Rauch about joining the starting rotation. "Aw, skip," Rauch would begin, "I feel more comfortable in the setup role." Now, however, Rauch has said he is willing to start for the Nationals. It's not like he has no experience as a starter; the 6'11 righty started more than 100 games during his seven years in the minor leagues.

Rauch, the Chicago White Sox' 3rd round pick in 1999 (99th player chosen overall), was traded to the Expos/Nationals in 2004 (along with Gary Majewski) for outfielder Carl Everett. Since his arrival in Washington, Rauch has been a solid reliever, crafting a 3.45 ERA.

His internal numbers are just as impressive. In 2006, he had a .231 batting average-against, .216 against right-handers and .254 against lefties. His BAA was .235 at home, .226 on the road, and had an identical .231 BAA in both day and night games. Take a look at his baserunner stats:

Now compare Rauch to Adam Eaton, who just signed a three year, $24 million dollar deal with the Phillies:

A concern about turning Rauch back into a starter is his stamina -- i.e. how would he fair in the later innings. According to his stats, that shouldn't be a problem. Look at his batting average-against in 2006 based on pitches:

Rauch's TSN scouting report: He has a mid-90s fastball that feels even faster because his reach leaves less time to decide whether to take or swing. His excellent control over the heater, slider and curveball, make him a truly frightening presence on the mound. Rauch could stand to work on his stamina if he wants to be a quality big-leaguer. He's also got to work on his approach against left-handed hitters. He can still emerge as a solid mid-rotation starter.

Rauch's career major league statistics add up to one full year as a starting pitcher, so we can get a feel of how he might do in the rotation next year:

He has allowed just 8 hits and 3 walks per 9 innings. He's averaged 7.5 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched.

At 28, Rauch is ready to take his place in the Nationals' starting rotation. By the end of the year, he could very easily have stats similar to those of John Patterson and do a fine job as the team's #2 starter. With the return of Luis Ayala next year, the Nationals wouldn't feel the loss of their setup man.

There is additional hope for the rotation. Bill Ladsen is reporting that the Nationals will be dangling both Jose Vidro and Ryan Church during the upcoming meetings. As much as I like Church, I also realize that he isn't going to survive this off-season. Vidro and Church (and some money to cover part of Vidro's contract) would bring a very strong starter. If Patterson remains healthy, if Rauch comes through, if a trade brings one quality starter, the team could then fill the last two slots in the rotation from within.

I don't think starting pitching is going to be nearly as bad as we've come to fear.

Finally, some real news: It's being reported that the Nationals have offered arbitration to type 'B' free-agent Jose Guillen (they declined arbitration to Tony Armas, Robert Fick and Ramon Ortiz). If Guillen doesn't accept arbitration by the December 7th deadline, he would be free to sign elsewhere and the Nationals would receive compensation for his loss. Though Armas, Fick and Ortiz were declined arbitration, it's still possible that one or more of them will re-sign with the Nationals. I don't see any circumstance that would bring Armas back -- the team has simply grown weary of him. But Fick wants to return, and probably will. The decision regarding Ortiz will be interesting. He won 11 games last year, though the rest of his numbers were pretty embarassing. That said, having the luxury of replacing Ortiz at the back of the rotation with a better pitcher doesn't make much sense, so why not bring him back and ask him to do what he did last year -- eat innings and at least put the team in a position to win (and with an 11-16 record, I think he did that.)

Offering arbitration to Guillen was a sound move. They don't really need him, but if he agrees, the Nationals' outfield becomes much stronger, regardless of when he can return. His "Tommy John" surgery recuperation period was listed at 8-18 months, with six months as a the minimum amount of time before he can begin throwing a baseball. He might not be ready for opening day, but that would be a good thing. That would give Jim Bowden the opportunity to trade Ryan Church for pitching, allow Kory Casto the opportunity to start in left and show if he's ready, and to see if Alex Escobar can remain healthy for entire season. If any of those players don't perform (or if Austin Kearns is traded for pitching), Guillen then has his starting job back.

I know most of you think that I'm "anti" Austin Kearns, but I'm not; I like the guy. I don't think, however, that he's as good as some might claim. Let's compare Guillen's 2005 season versus Kearn's 2005 effort:

Austin Kearns:

Jose Guillen:

Guillen hits for a much higher average and doesn't strike out nearly as much. Kearns on the other hand walks at a rate close to the major league average while Guillen always seems to be at the bottom of the base-on-balls category. Kearns is an "above average" outfielder while Guillen is considered "excellent" by most.

So, let's "play" for a minute. Ryan Church and Jose Vidro get traded for a starting pitcher. The front three (Patterson, Rauch and the new guy) wouldn't be a bad beginning. But what if Bowden takes a chance on Guillen? I mean, he liked him enough a year ago to offer him a 4/$40 million dollar contract. And, unlike Soriano, Jose Guillen really did like playing here and really did want to remain a part of this team. Perhaps Manny Acta's Dominican background didn't sway Soriano, but it just may Mr. Guillen. Were he traded, Kearns would bring an above-average starter, meaning that the Nats' starting pitching would be certainly good enough, even better if Bowden brings back Ortiz for one more season.

Would an outfield of Kory Casto, Escobar/Logan and Jose Guillen provide enough pop to make the Nationals competitive? Well, yes, if Bowden trades for starting pitching.

Will any of this come to fruition? Hard to say. Reports are surfacing that Guillen is close to signing with an American League team, probably the Mariners, for one year/$5 million. If this is a "done deal," then Bowden's move was designed only to get another "sandwich pick" for the farm system - quick thinking Jimbo. If the story about the Mariners is untrue, then Bowden is probably really trying to bring him back.

Stay stuned.

UPDATE - Guillen signs: ESPN Deportes has announced that it's a done deal. Guillen has signed a one year, $5 million dollar contract with incentives and an option for 2008. It's now pretty apparent that Bowden, smelling a done deal, offered arbitration so that he could grab another draft pick.

Hey, that's pretty sneaky, Jimbo. I like it.


Comments:
RAUCH is one of my favorite guys on the team, I just hope this all works out...
 
If "THE WOOKIE" does end up starting, he needs to quit giving up the GOPHER BALL. He had to led the league in Home Runs per innings pitched last year. Once, he gave up a homer in 4 straight appearances at RFK. He is intriguing though. And, he wife, who sits next to us in Section 320 is a blast.
 
Letting Guillen get away might be a big mistake. He would be good insurance in the outfield and, if healthy, could put up better numbers than Soriano next season. Church is as good as gone. Escobar is too fragile. Logan's hitting is a big question mark. Casto hit only .270 in double A and has never played triple A. The outfield could end up being a much of a problem as the starting pitching.
 
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