You can tell Davey Johnson really likes Ryan Mattheus. When Johnson took over last year, he inserted Mattheus – who at that time had thrown a handful of major league innings – into a key, late-inning role. At the end of the season, Johnson shut Mattheus down to protect his arm. Today, Johnson said Mattheus has the talent to close one day.
Despite all that, and despite Mattheus’s 2.81 ERA in 32 innings last year, Mattheus will have a hard time cracking the Nationals’ opening day roster, a possible victim of having a minor league option remaining and of the Nationals’ improved pitching depth. It’s stunning how many pitchers who may not make this team could have starred on previous Nationals’ staffs. Mattheus is a prime example.
“I’ve got an open mind on everybody here,” Johnson said about the competition in the bullpen. But contractual considerations may play a role. Consider the Nationals’ seven bullpen spots. Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez, Sean Burnett and Brad Lidge look like locks. Tom Gorzelanny has no minor league options. Neither does Ross Detwiler, for whom there is not enough room in the starting rotation. There’s seven.
“The way I look at it is, it’s a Major League Baseball team,” Mattheus said. “It’s going to be competitive. They don’t really hand these jobs out very easily. Anytime you come here, it’s going to be competitive. You got to compete to make a team.
“I definitely thought I had a good chance to make this team based on the success I had last year, but it’s never a given. I’ve never been given a job in this game before. I don’t see why they’d start now.”
In order to make the opening day bullpen, Mattheus would have to be so impressive that the Nationals are willing to lose another 40-man roster pitcher.
“Those are quality arms,” Mattheus said. “It’s going to take being pretty good to crack that thing. I just want to get off to a good start.”
To be sure, he has. Mattheus came into spring training having shed about 15 pounds. He’s been firing lightning bolts since the first day of bullpen sessions.
“I’m sure he went home and worked his butt off, because he’s throwing right now even better than he threw at times when he was good,” Johnson said. “That’s a good thing. I think he’ll be able to expand into any kind of role.”
Mattheus relished his winter, finally a “regular offseason.” Mattheus underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009, the year the Nationals traded Joe Beimel to the Rockies for him at the deadline. He returned at the tail end of 2010 and pitched a handful of innings.
With his arm strength not built up, he went through a tepid offseason throwing program last year, then stayed in extended spring training to build up arm strength. Finally, Mattheus started working his way back, and by midseason he had earned a role in the Nationals’ bullpen.
His recovery from Tommy John, though, had left him unprepared for a full workload. In September, Mattheus’s fastball dropped from the mid-90s to the high-80s. He felt no pain, but “I just ran out of gas.” Johnson told him, “I’m not going to let you break.” Despite no injury, just fatigue, the Nationals put Mattheus on the disabled list.
Now, Mattheus is confident he won’t run out of gas again.
“I didn’t have to rehab anything. I could just get a full offseason of training underneath me. I think it’s paid off,” Mattheus said. “I’m the healthiest I’ve felt the last three years, and all that stuff is out of my mind. I don’t have to worry. I can just let the ball go now. I can lift and run hard. I can do my side sessions with some intensity and not worry about coming up sore the next day.”
This spring, he’ll find out if its enough to make it on a roster with a crowded pitching staff.