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Can Craig Stammen Be the No. 5 in Washington?

When it comes to Nationals pitching there’s plenty of excitement. Stephen Strasburg plays the headliner, but there’s also Jordan Zimmerman, in the minors after completing rehab from Tommy John surgery, Drew Storen, and even Ross Detwiler. In the minors they also have Brad Meyers, No. 7 on Hulet’s Nats prospects list and who, in limited time, has thoroughly dominated AA, though his foot injury has kept him out of action since June 3. With that type of high end in the system it’s easy to overlook potentially solid contributors. Though his MLB career hasn’t looked good to this point, Craig Stammen could be just that.

A 12th round pick in 2005, the Nats obviously didn’t have the highest hopes for him. He never ranked among their Top 10 prospects, and for good reason. His fastball sits at just around 90 mph. While he does carry the staples — slider, curveball, changeup — none stands out. Yet through most levels of the minors he was able to keep his walk rate down, and that earned him a promotion in 2009, after he worked 40 excellent innings in AAA. Yet, unsurprisingly for an unheralded pitcher with no discernible out pitch, Stammed stumbled in his debut season, though his 5.11 ERA was quite a bit worse than his 4.68 FIP and 4.48 xFIP. His low strikeout rate was concerning, but he did keep his walks low, always a desirable trait for a back-end starter.

Stammen’s season ended when he underwent surgery in August to remove bone chips from his elbow, which might have helped explain his 4.09 K/9 after experiencing much better marks at nearly every level of the minors. Might a clean bill of health be the difference between Stammen the mop-up man and Stammen the back-of-the-rotation starter? DC Sports Blog thought so. In a September 2009 post, Sean Hogan wrote:

Looking at Stammen’s AAA and ML rate stats, his K rate has dropped at an alarming pace in 2009, from 7-8 K/9 in each level in 2008 down to 3.15 in AAA and 4.08 in the Majors. I’m guessing it has to do with his elbow issues. If that’s the case, Stammen could be another breakout candidate in 2010, as he is the anti-Martin in terms of luck-his FIP, BABIP and LOB% all suggest he was unlucky in 2009.

In 2010 Stammen broke camp in the Nats rotation, first getting the ball on April 8. The start to his season didn’t go nearly according to plan. He faced Philadelphia in both of his first two starts and managed a combined 6.1 innings, allowing 11 runs on 16 hits with just one strikeout to speak of. He kept the ball in the park and didn’t walk anyone, surrendering one of each, but that didn’t make the Nats look any better. He did recover in his next few starts, but a few more poor starts, including a five-inning, five run performance against Houston on June 1, sealed his fate. He’d be demoted after his June 6 start — 6.2 innings, one run — against the Reds to make room for Strasburg.

We so often see so-so major league pitchers go down to AAA after a stint in the bigs and dominate, and that’s exactly what Stammen did. He pitched 20 innings in three starts, allowing just five runs and hardly walking anyone. His strikeouts were still low, but everything else seemed fine. When the Nats needed another starter later in June they recalled him. He has been in the rotation ever since.

This stint has gone markedly better than his previous. He started with a 7.1 inning, two-run performance against the Braves that included four strikeouts. The Mets knocked him around the next time, and the Giants did a good job on July 10. But in his last four starts it looks like he has hit his stride. While he has managed just 22.2 innings in that span, he has struck out 20, walked nine, and allowed only one home run. They have come against Florida, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Arizona, all offenses that rank above the NL average.

Yet Stammen’s place in the rotation is not safe. Jason Marquis is ready to return following an injury that has kept him out most of the season, and MASN’s Ben Goessling thought Stammen “the logical choice.” Yet Goessling adds an interesting note, especially considering Stammen’s quality outing against Arizona: 5.1 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 6 K:

Things will get interesting, though, if Stammen pitches well. He was sharp in his last start and solid in the one before that, and seems to be turning a corner. The Nationals are going to have to make a few of these decisions in the next two months, none of them involving a pitcher in whom the Nationals have invested as much financially as Marquis.

Given his recent performances, it would seem like a mistake to demote Stammen again. His skillset is finally coming together to form a back-end major league starter. He has the first requirement of such a pitcher, a high groundball rate, 49.7 percent this year. His strikeout rate was also markedly higher in June, 6.58 per nine, which is more in line with his minor league totals. The most standout number, though, is his swinging strike rate. Hitters have whiffed at 9.2 percent of his pitches this year, a rate equal to David Price and Phil Hughes. This is encouraging, in that it could eventually lead him to a respectable strikeout rate, making him an even better back-end starter candidate.

Overall Stammen’s peripherals have improved this year. His .320 BABIP has led to a high hit rate, but other than that his peripherals are getting better, especially with his strikeout rate on the rise. His ERA sits at an ugly 5.06, but his FIP and xFIP are much better, 4.14 and 4.16. His strand rate is also pretty low, 64.3 percent. If he moves more in line with league average his ERA could fall a bit.

At 26, Stammen is running out of chances to establish himself in the rotation. This goes especially for a team like that Nats that has plenty of young pitchers who will compete for rotation spots in the coming years. Yet it looks like they might have someone to depend on in the back end. That’s never something to overlook for a team that is going about the rebuilding process slowly and steadily.