The Washington Nationals made a surprising decision with their final roster cuts on Tuesday. As reported by the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore, the team optioned starting pitcher John Lannan to Class AAA Syracuse and kept Ross Detwiler on the big league roster. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a shock that the Nats sent Lannan to the minors, considering general manager Mike Rizzo was trying to trade him throughout spring training.

With the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to their rotation, the Nationals appeared to have a surplus of starting pitching. Several rumors had the Detroit Tigers inquiring about Lannan, with the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros also showing interest.

The general opinion seemed to be that the Nats would hold on to Lannan after Chien-Ming Wang suffered a hamstring injury. But Lannan did himself no favors by pitching badly this spring. In six appearances, he allowed 14 runs (12 earned) and 24 hits in 21 innings.

By comparison, Detwiler compiled a 3.06 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings.

According to’s Mark Zuckerman, choosing Detwiler over Lannan wasn’t simply a matter of spring performance. The Nationals believe Detwiler has more upside and can get even better.

With Lannan, what you see is what you get. He’s a good, not great pitcher and isn’t really going to improve.’s Bill Ladson reported that the Nats indeed tried to trade Lannan, but were asking for too much in return. No potential trade partner wanted to give up a starting major league position player in exchange for a pitcher that would probably fill the back end of a rotation. 

Above all else, Lannan being squeezed off the roster speaks to how the talent level and depth of the Nationals’ starting five has improved.

Last year, the Nats pitched Livan Hernandez and Lannan in their first two games of the season. But the pitching staff has come a long way.

Stephen Strasburg is back after Tommy John surgery. Jordan Zimmermann made 26 starts after undergoing the same procedure a year earlier. Gonzalez is the rare left-handed strikeout pitcher, almost racking up 200 of them last season.

Edwin Jackson could be a No. 2 starter on many teams. In D.C., he’ll probably be fourth in the Nats’ rotation. 

That is a deep top four which measures up against any other team in the majors, let alone in the NL East. Add Detwiler and you have a fifth starter who could do a lot more than just eat innings and give the bullpen a break. 

This isn’t just an encouraging decision by the Nationals, it’s a bold one. According to Kilgore, Lannan is the highest paid player to be optioned to the minors before spring training ends. He’s on the books for $5 million this year.

Lannan will probably be back in D.C. at some point this year. No team makes it through a full major league season using just five starting pitchers. But the Nats didn’t want to settle as they begin what could be a playoff season for them. 

Many teams would have opted to keep the guy with the larger salary, especially when he posted a 3.70 ERA last season. But the Nationals believe they have a better team with Detwiler in the rotation. That’s the kind of aggressive thinking Nats fans should celebrate. 

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