John Lannan was the opening day starter for the Washington Nationals in 2009.
He received the honor again in 2010.
Yet despite being a regular part of the Nats rotation for the past four seasons, Lannan won't be anywhere near the team when it opens the season in Chicago on Thursday afternoon. He'll be nearly 700 miles away in New York instead, opening the season for the Syracuse Chiefs, the team's Triple-A affiliate.
If you're looking for a heartwarming, hope-springs-eternal story for the start of baseball season, this is not it because Lannan's demotion in favor of Ross Detwiler on Tuesday afternoon came as a shock. Not only had he posted a sub-4.00 ERA during his spring training work in Viera, Fla., but he is also scheduled to make $5 million this season. Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post says the 27-year-old lefthander is the highest-paid player in history to be optioned to the minors before the end of spring training.
Washington manager Davey Johnson said that Lannan is now "a very luxurious insurance policy," but surely even he must know how awkward that sounds. It obviously must have been awkward news to deliver as Nathan Fenno of the Washington Times reports that Johnson waited until the third inning of Tuesday's game to break the news instead of holding a morning meeting in his office. Lannan did not speak to reporters after he received the news.
All of this is not to say that Lannan's place on the team wasn't already viewed as precarious or that there aren't baseball reasons behind the move. The offseason additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson created a logjam at the back of the Nationals rotation and the suddenly-expendable Lannan was rumored to be on the trading block this spring.
Lannan stayed with the Nats, though, and appeared to be the team's choice for its fifth starter when Chien Ming-Wang went down with a hamstring injury. Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo, though, ultimately made the decision that Detwiler would take the fifth starter spot after the No. 6 pick in the 2007 draft put together an impressive finish to the 2011 season.
"I had a change of heart," Johnson said of the decision. "The best thing for the organization today, as well as tomorrow, is for Ross Detwiler to get the opportunity to start."
And so Lannan will head to Syracuse where he'll earn $5 million to witness the Bryce Harper carnival up close. It's certainly not the news he wanted to hear and one would think his chances of being traded to a team with open rotation spots (and budget space) haven't gotten any better with the demotion. You really have to feel for the guy, even if saying he was a two-time opening day starter admittedly adds a thin layer of sensationalism to the injustice (leading the Nationals rotation in the pre-Strasburg era, after all, evokes the "tallest midget" cliche).
And yet, at the same time, Nats fans can also see a big silver lining in the demotion of a fan favorite. While Detwiler isn't guaranteed to outperform Lannan in that No. 5 spot, the Nationals just made a decision they believe that put baseball reasons in front of financial concerns. That hasn't always been the case with the Nats, so it's hard not to also interpret this as organizational progress.
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