Considering the complexion of the Nationals’ bullpen and the constraints of the roster, Drew Storen may have endangered his spot on the Nationals’ 25-man roster in a span of three batters this afternoon.
That is harsh for a 2009 first-round pick who has done everything right in his short career – he signed immediately after being drafted, tore through the Nationals’ farm system and pitched well, dominant at times, during his five months in the majors last year. But it’s also the reality.
Let’s not get carried away. The Nationals still view Storen as a probable piece of their opening day bullpen. It is unlikely that Storen will begin the season anywhere but the major leagues. But it could happen.
Storen entered the spring as a virtual certainty in the Nationals’ bullpen, possibly their closer. Two surprising factors have muddled his status. First, the emergence of Chad Gaudin and Brian Broderick – two pitchers who would likely be lost should the Nationals not place them on the 25-man roster – has crowded the bullpen. Second, Storen has struggled just as often as he’s dominated.
Today, the first three batters Storen faced during the Nationals’ 10-4 loss, all Cardinals minor leaguers, blasted balls to the warning track or track or beyond – a triple to center and two home runs. The next batter singled off third baseman Alex Cintron’s glove, a cheap single. The next batter walked.
Storen settled, recording two fly ball outs and a groundout to end the inning. But he had added four more hits and one more walk to his spring training totals, now up to 14 and two in 6 1/3 innings. Storen has surrendered nine earned runs, which gives him a 12.79 ERA.
“I just threw pretty appetizing pitches, apparently,” Storen said. “I’m just trying to work on my spots. I guess I got a little too much of the plate. It’s just a game of adjustments. I’ve got to make some changes for next time. I’m also keeping in mind, it’s a process. It’s a tough learning experience, but it’s going to make me better in the end.”
Storen is healthy – “my stuff’s there,” he said. “I feel perfect.” And it’s not like he’s been consistently brutal – his last outing, he went three up, three down. Storen has been throwing more fastballs than usual, an instruction from Nationals coaches who want him to improve his fastball command. And as he has been experimenting, it has been that command – or lack of command – that has been costing him when he struggles.
“It’s just a matter of executing,” Storen said.” Just because you feel good and you’re throwing hard, at this level is doesn’t really matter. That’s what you’re seeing right now. If you throw it up and over the zone, these guys don’t make mistakes.”
Storen again threw almost all fastballs today. “It’s just something I’m working on, trying to get some outs with the fastball,” he said. “I just threw some over the plate. I haven’t had a chance to look at the video, but from I saw, they looked middle-middle. I need to work on moving it to either side of the plate and probably a little bit down.”
In a vacuum, Storen’s roster status would not even be a question. But roster decisions are seldom made in a vacuum.
Tyler Clippard and Henry Rodriguez are out of options. The Nationals signed Todd Coffey to a $1.35 million contract this offseason. Sean Burnett, dating back to last year and continuing this spring, has been awesome. Doug Slaten has an option remaining, but he and Burnett are the only left-handed relievers in camp.
There’s five of seven relief spots. Two remain for Storen, Broderick and Gaudin. Keeping both Broderick, 24, and Gaudin, 27, would make for an awkward bullpen composition – both are long-relief or back-of-the-rotation types. But Broderick, as a Rule 5 pick, would have to stay on the 25-man roster all season in order for the Nationals to keep him. And Gaudin would have to pass through waivers if the Nationals tried to send him to the minors, something one scout said will not happen.
With them both pitching so well this spring, the Nationals will have a tough decision to make. The surest way to hold on to all their talent would be send one of their relievers with options – Storen or Slaten – to Class AAA Syracuse to start the season.
Now, don’t take the words devoted to that long-winded explanation to mean it’s probably going to happen. Again, the Nationals’ thinking is it’s unlikely that Storen starts the year in Syracuse. But it’s possible.
Here’s what Manager Riggleman said when asked about Storen’s security: “I don’t think that anybody who’s watched us in the last week has seen anybody securing any jobs in the bullpen, with the exception of Burnett. Everybody else has thrown good and just hasn’t pitched good. Nobody is happy with the results. You don’t like the way we’ve been getting beat on in our bullpen the last three or four days.”
It would be somewhat unfair to Storen if the Nationals made a decision about his roster spot based mainly on options. Performance? Fine. But Storen did right by the Nationals when he signed his contract the second they picked him 10th overall. The Nationals did right by Storen when they called him to the majors in May last year, early enough to make him eligible for Super Two status. The Nationals would be undoing their end by starting him at Class AAA Syracuse, thereby not allowing him to collect service time.
When it comes to that discussion, Storen has the right frame of mind – he’s ignoring it. Much attention has been paid to Storen’s spring, which tends to happen when a first-round pick is competing to become the closer, one the most important positions on a baseball team. Still just 23, Storen deserves for the even-keeled way in which he’s handled the attention. He knows he can only control his next start. By pitching well, he could quiet the talk, and that’s what Storen plans on doing.
“I don’t really think about the external factors,” Storen said. “I just want to go out there and compete. If you’re out there thinking about winning a job, or you’re going to be this guy and that, you’re going to get yourself in trouble. I’m just trying to get out there and get outs. Hopefully, the other stuff will take care of itself.”