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Posted at 10:13 AM ET, 12/02/2011

In division with Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Nationals still have bullpen advantage

Not counting their move to Miami and the unveiling of their Technicolor uniforms, the Marlins made their first big splash of the offseason late last night when they reportedly signed closer Heath Bell to a three-year, $27 million deal with a vesting option for a fourth year at another $9 million. Moving into their new stadium, the Marlins have one of the best closers in baseball, albeit one who will have to adapt to not pitching in San Diego’s Petco Park, the place that proves God loves pitchers and wants them to be happy.

The two biggest deals signed this offseason, then, have been for closers who landed in the National League East. The Phillies used some of the money they print in the boiler room of Citizens Bank Park to sign Jonathan Papelbon to a precedent-setting four-year, $50 million contract. Throw in Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel, and the Nats are in store for scant few inviting ninth innings next season. At least there’s the Mets, who seemingly plan to find the best closer who will pitch for sunflower seeds and Bud Light.

So should the Nationals feel the need to respond to their divisional brethren’s closer grabs? Heck, no. Even after the big deals by the Marlins and Phillies, one of the Nationals’ biggest advantages still lies in their outstanding young bullpen, which is something General Manager Mike Rizzo agrees with.

The players penciled into the Nationals bullpen for next year appear to be Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez, Sean Burnett and Ryan Mattheus. Those are what you’re looking at for the Nationals best five relievers. Salary-wise, they’ll be making $480,000, $2.5 million*, $480,000, $2.3 million and $480,000 in 2012.

That’s $6.24 million combined – $2.76 million less than what Bell will make alone, and $6.26 million less than Papelbon’s salary.

The Nationals don’t have a high-priced closer, but they do have, in Storen, a 24-year-old who saved 43 games last year despite not inheriting the full-time role until about a month into the season. They have one of best eighth-inning pitchers in baseball in Clippard, and they have a right-hander with maybe the best arm in the entire league – Rodriguez’s fastball averaged 98 miles per hour last year, the highest average velocity of any pitcher with at least 50 innings.

The Nationals haven’t shelled out big money for a closer, and they shouldn’t. Their advantage lies in an excellent, inexpensive bullpen that is still probably better than Philadelphia’s or Miami’s. And we haven’t mentioned how volatile closers are, making the financial risk on Bell and Papelbon all the more severe. The Nationals should spend their money someplace else.

*That’s an estimate for what Clippard will earn in arbitration, and maybe not a good one. It’s pretty hard to gauge what a reliever will be worth in arbitration, and that might seem high for a first-year-eligible reliever. (The essential predicts $1.7) But with the contracts relievers have been given the past two offseasons and Clippard becoming one of the very best relievers in baseball, he’s got a unique case.

By  |  10:13 AM ET, 12/02/2011

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