The Washington Nationals bullpen has been a strength of the team for the last couple seasons, but they have had some issues with guys getting burnt out by the end of the season. Tyler Clippard is a prime example of this, throwing 72.2, 88.1, and 91 innings in each of the last three seasons. However, the Nats padded their 'pen a bit more by adding one big name this offseason, Rafael Soriano, to help take pressure of the other relievers and the starters who may not pitch deep into games.
Here are the seven guys I expect to be in the bullpen on Opening Day, assuming health, with an honorable mention at the end.
1. Rafael Soriano – Soriano was acquired this offseason on a two-year deal for one purpose: to close baseball games. He has pitched consistently over the course of most of his career, with the only exception being 2011, when he dealt with some elbow issues. Other than that one season, Soriano has never had an ERA above 3.00 in a season where pitched in enough innings to qualify. That is extraordinary, and it’s exactly why he has a lock on the closer’s role.
2. Drew Storen – After about the worst ending to a season you could imagine for a pitcher, Storen has said all the right things and has done all the right things, as is evident in Jayson Stark’s article on ESPN.com. It’s easy to focus on NLDS Game Five and not focus on how he’s been an elite reliever since being called up. As Stark writes, “Over the last two years, Storen has allowed opposing hitters to compile just a .570 OPS. Among relievers with at least 40 saves and 100 innings pitched, that ranks fourth in baseball, behind only Craig Kimbrel, Fernando Rodney and Jason Motte.” That’s some company. Storen will sit in the eighth inning role with an occasional jaunt into the ninth inning to give Soriano an off day.
3. Tyler Clippard – As mentioned at the top of this post, Clippard has thrown a lot of innings in the last couple years, so the improved bullpen should allow him to pitch less frequently and hopefully keep him fresh down the stretch. Clippard clearly burnt out toward the end of last season when Storen retook the closer’s role. I expect another solid season from Clippard with an ERA somewhere around 3.00, but I wouldn’t expect him to get many save opportunities unless Storen or Soriano get hurt.
4. Ryan Mattheus – Mattheus role with the Nationals is extremely underrated. Despite having no save opportunities during his two seasons with the Nats, he’s had ERAs of 2.81 and 2.85 in 2011 and 2012, respectively. He’s capable of pitching late innings when guys need days off, and he has a live fastball that he throws up to 95 mph. He’ll be a valuable member of the 2013 bullpen, but most of his work will be in the sixth and seventh innings.
5. Craig Stammen – It was finally a real breakout season for Stammen who, like Ross Detwiler, have finally started to realize their potential. Stammen was once a starter during the not-so-good years for the Nationals, but he’s definitely found a place for himself in the bullpen as a long and middle innings reliever. The bullpen is so stacked at this point at the back end, I think Stammen will primarily be used in long relief, but he certainly has the stuff, including a devastating tight slider, to get some middle to late inning appearances. He could also be used in a very similar way to Ryan Mattheus.
6. Henry Rodriguez – Oh, Henry. The potential of the fireballing righty keeps bringing him back into the bullpen, despite a disastrous 2012 season before missing the rest of the season with an elbow injury. That same injury is plaguing Rodriguez in spring training right now, but he’s expected to throw off a mound early next week. If he’s healthy, he’s out of options and he’d be snatched off of waivers in a millisecond, so that means he’s in the bullpen. Hopefully he’s recovered from his injuries, and that allows him to reign in his control. Otherwise, that experiment may not last long.
7. Zach Duke – Duke was a feel good story in 2012, so it’s only fitting that he signed a major league deal this past offseason to be the Nats lone lefty in the bullpen. Duke’s primary role will be long relief, and he’d definitely be the spot starter in an emergency, but he should also get some lefty on lefty action as well. Hopefully, Duke is able to replicate his impressive September 2012 performance.
Honorable Mention: Christian Garcia – The Nationals have shown interest in stretching out Garcia into a starter, which seems like a curious decision for a guy who had two Tommy John surgeries before his 23rd birthday. Now, complicating matters, he’s had a forearm strain already in Spring Training. Personally, I’d like to see the Nats put Garcia back in the bullpen where he could keep his innings down, especially considering his injury history. I think that’s exactly what will happen eventually, especially if any injuries occur to the seven guys listed above.
Next edition: Catchers and Infield