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02/11/10 10:00 AM EST

Nationals put emphasis on pitching

Club hopes upgraded rotation, bullpen lead to more wins

WASHINGTON -- After posting a National League-worst 5.00 ERA last season, the Nationals' top priority this offseason was to improve their pitching staff.

Washington believes it made significant improvements to the staff by signing free agents Matt Capps, Eddie Guardado, Jason Marquis and Tyler Walker, while trading for Brian Bruney. Marquis is expected to lead the starting rotation, while the rest of the pitchers acquired this offseason are expected to be solid contributors in the bullpen. The relievers most likely will find themselves pitching from the sixth inning on.

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"There are a lot of improvements on both sides, especially in the bullpen," Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "We added Capps, Bruney, Walker and Guardado -- if he's healthy. I'm excited about that."

McCatty also said solid defense will play a role in the ERA going down in 2010. Last year, Nationals pitchers weren't so lucky, as the team recorded a Major League-leading 143 errors.

However, a healthy Cristian Guzman at shortstop and the acquisition of second baseman Adam Kennedy and catcher Ivan Rodriguez should make a big difference to the staff, according to McCatty.

"When you improve your defense, that really reflects upon the pitching, too," McCatty said. "Not a knock at Josh Bard and Wil Nieves, but you add Pudge and his experience, so it's going to make the pitching improve. I don't expect anything like it was last year."

During Spring Training, Bruney and Capps will battle for the closer role. McCatty already had conversations with the two right-handers, and they indicated to McCatty they will do anything for the team.

McCatty also likes the fact that they are aggressive on the mound and want to pitch often.

"I know there is a lot of talk about Capps' role and Bruney's role," said McCatty. "Both of them said, 'Whatever you guys want, I'm ready to do it.' They just want to pitch. I love that. That's what you need. They want the ball every day. They are hard-nose competitors."

Although they have Marquis to lead the rotation, the Nationals still want another veteran starter. The team is a finalist to acquire right-hander Chien-Ming Wang's services, but he may not be ready for Opening Day because he is still recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery.

"During the early part of the winter, we made sure we got things done," Rizzo said. "I made sure we had a Major League veteran starter, Major League catcher and improved the bullpen. We took care of that.

"I think during the second half of the offseason, we are going to let a little bit of that come to us. We do think there is a surplus of people out there ... that we are talking about. There is nobody ... out there on the pitching market that is a difference maker."

If the Nats don't acquire a veteran starter, look for Collin Balester, Matt Chico, Ross Detwiler, J.D. Martin, Garrett Mock, Scott Olsen and Stephen Strasburg to compete for the final two rotation spots. Marquis and John Lannan and, most likely, Craig Stammen, are locks to be in the first three spots in the rotation.

"Jason is a quality veteran guy. Guys could learn from his approach on the mound," McCatty said. "I think everything is getting better. There is going to be a lot of competition, and I like competition. Guys have to go out there and say, 'I can do a halfway decent job and make this team.' You better be ready to go out there."

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