Right now, with less than two weeks to opening day, the Nationals closer is no one in particular. Manager Jim Riggleman has waited all spring for one of Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Todd Coffey or Henry Rodriguez to emerge, and none of them has. And so it seems more and more likely that those three, along with left-hander Sean Burnett, will form a kind of closer-by-committee.
“I don’t even really want to use the word” closer, Riggleman said. “We’re just going to try to get the outs in the ninth inning. There’s no one person. You see spurts of excellence, guys blowing some people away. And then you see wildness. It’s just a matter of maneuvering it as best you to try to get the outs in the eighth and ninth if you’re winning the ballgame.”
The history of using a platoon of relievers for the final three outs of the game is spotty. Riggleman has often said that “in a perfect world,” a clear-cut closer would emerge. Still, he feels comfortable with the idea of spreading around the last three outs of the game.
There are both merits and drawbacks to the committee idea. Multiple relievers capable of pitching the ninth will allow Riggleman to matchup with hitters more effectively – against a tough lefty, Burnett or Clippard could enter the game, and perhaps Coffey or Storen could handle a couple power-hitting right-handed batters. Rather feeling locked in to one reliever, Riggleman can choose the pitcher best-suited to handle the situation. Riggleman recalled a conversation with Jim Leyland, who used three relievers to pitch the ninth when he took the Pirates to the playoffs in the early 90s.
But the idea generally sounds better in a vacuum than it plays out. In 2003, the Boston Red Sox’ bullpen infamously imploded when they used a committee approach for the ninth. Modern bullpens thrive on relievers understanding their roles, knowing how to develop a routine and never being surprised. The committee strategy can create uncertainty in a bullpen.
By opening day or early in the season, one pitcher could emerge. The Nationals are grooming Storen to one day become the definitive closer; Rodriguez has a power arm made for closing; Burnett doesn’t fit the closer prototype but he was clearly the Nationals’ best reliever last year, and has been again this spring.
“You hear the rumors,” Burnett said. “I don’t know if I’m so much looking to close, but it’s nice to keep my name in the mix if it’s possible. I’m not sure what way they’re thinking. Hopefully, I’ll keep my name in the mix. … If it comes down to getting three outs in the ninth inning, I feel like I’m capable of doing that. It would be a challenge for me, but it would be a pretty neat challenge. There’s still a lot of time left in spring training to figure it out.”
Sometime this season, the Nationals may have a full-time closer. For now, they’re still looking.