Nationals positional review, Part 5: Bullpen

Tyler Clippard is in line for a pay raise, no matter where he’s pitching next season. (Alex Brandon / AP)

Each day this week, we’ll be taking stock of every Nationals’ positional group. In Part 5 of 5 today, we’ll look at the bullpen. Previously, we studied the infield, outfield, catchers and rotation. 

2012 SEASON REVIEW

The Nationals’ bullpen had another excellent season, but it will be hard for them, especially closer Drew Storen, to shake the final images from the year, when the Cardinals turned a 6-3 deficit into a 9-7 victory in four innings against Nationals relievers. Storen surrendered the final four runs, the absolute worst time for his month-long run of dominance to end.

The Nationals would not have won 98 games without their bullpen, which posted a 3.23 ERA for the season (seventh best in the majors) despite pitching 515 1/3 innings (second-most in the National League). They thrived despite employing four closers because of injuries and ineffectiveness.

The Nationals entered the season with their expected closer, Storen, on the disabled list because of an elbow injury that would eventually require surgery to remove bone chips. They began with Henry Rodriguez and Brad Lidge splitting the closing duties, an arrangement that fell apart as Lidge lost the power on his fastball and Rodriguez unraveled after a strong start. (It would later be learned that Rodriguez pitched with a bone chip in his elbow and needed season-ending surgery.)

In late May, Tyler Clippard took over the ninth-inning role he always wanted, and thoroughly dominated. He allowed no earned runs in his first 17 1/3 inning as the Nationals’ closer, saving 14 games in that span. While he finished the season with 32 saves, Clippard had a rocky second half. He punched up a 5.60 ERA after the all-star break with three blown saves and three other losses.

Once Storen came back, he looked better than ever right up until the moment he secured the second out in the ninth inning against the Cardinals in Game 5. The rest of the Nationals’ bullpen settled into roles and performed them well – Ryan Mattheus emerged as a top set-up man; Craig Stammen was a force in either long relief or early-inning set-up; Michael Gonzalez took care of tough lefties; Sean Burnett solidified the seventh inning; Tom Gorzelanny chewed up innings when needed.

In September, they received a boost from call-up Christian Garcia. He allowed three earned runs in his first 12 2/3 major league innings, striking out 15. Opposing scouts generally viewed him as an eighth-inning set-up man.

OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

The Nationals could undergo something of an overhaul in their bullpen. It’s not a certainty, but they have plenty of potentially moving parts.

Burnett could become a free agent. He likely will decline his half of a $3.5 million mutual option. The Nationals and Burnett, who underwent arthroscopic surgery Thursday after he pitched with two small bone spurs in his elbow for the second half of the season, could discuss another multi-year deal. Burnett likes it in Washington and would want to stay, but his performance – a 2.38 ERA in 56 2/3 innings – will make him a marketable free agent. (And the Cardinals, to name one team, will be looking for a lefty.)

Clippard has been one of the most valuable relievers in baseball the past three seasons, but his contractual situation and his usage the past three years may convince the Nationals to ponder trading him. Clippard will be due a substantial raise in arbitration from the $1.65 million he made this year. Clippard has proven to be durable, but relievers do not last forever. Over the past three years, no reliever in the major leagues has pitched more innings (252) than Clippard. He would still be cheap given his high standard of performance, but he also may never be more valuable trade bait than he is right now.

The Nationals could turn Garcia into a starter. If they don’t, he’s a great fit in the late innings, and a possible replacement to Clippard as the Nationals’ top set-up man if the Nationals trade him. Mattheus pitched well enough to warrant consideration for the eighth inning, too. 

Storen will be eligible for arbitration for the first time. He has an interesting case. In 2011, he saved 43 games, the kind of season that makes the drawer of arbitration cash register fly open. His representatives at CAA Sports and the Nationals will have to haggle about how the three months he missed this past season impacts his 2013 salary. Andrew Bailey had 75 career saves and a 2.07 ERA before he signed for $3.9 million last year, his first arbitration-eligible season. Storen has a 2.96 ERA and 52 saves.

More important than his contract, Storen will have to move beyond his disastrous finish to the season, when he allowed the Cardinals four runs in the ninth inning of Game 5. Storen is strong mentally. It’s impossible to say how he will react, but he has shown he has the right temperament to bounce back.

Gonzalez, 34, will be a free agent. The Nationals should be interested in bringing him back. He gave the Nationals their most veteran presence and was awfully effective against left-handed hitters, especially down the stretch. Left-handers hit .179 against him with a .525 OPS.  The Nationals signed Gonzalez as a minor league free agent in May, and his performance this year raised his price.

Rodriguez should recover in time for spring training, and the Nationals should be able to finally learn what they have in Rodriguez and whether or not he’ll ever harness the jet fuel in his right arm.

Gorzelanny should receive a modest raise from his $3 million salary in arbitration. The Nationals will have to decide if they want to tender him a contract, but they like his stuff enough that bringing him back seems likely. He also provides value as an emergency spot starter. Stammen will be eligible for arbitration for the first time, and the Nationals will have an easy call to tender him a contract.

POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

The Nationals’ collapse in Game 5 stemmed, at least in part, from inexperience in the Nationals’ bullpen. The Nationals could use one more tested arm in the back of the bullpen to add some presence, to beef up the depth and to give Storen support should he falter early in the season.

Ryan Madson fits that bill, and because he is coming off Tommy John surgery, the price to sign him should be reasonable. Madson, 32, was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in the spring and is already throwing off flat ground. Last year, Madson signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Reds with an $11 million mutual option. Assuming the Reds turn that down and pay him a $2.5 million buyout, the Nationals could pursue Madson, a Scott Boras client and former Phillies teammate of Jayson Werth. In the five seasons prior to 2012, Madson had a 2.89 ERA. He collected 32 saves in 2011, and he has a 2.31 career ERA in 35 relief innings. Grant Balfour, coming off a 24-save season in Oakland, could also be a fit.

PROSPECT TO WATCH

Relief prospects are usually identified only after they fall short of the majors as a starter, so the Nationals could have an ace closer currently masquerading as a middling starter. But among current relievers, Rob Wort stands out as a name to know. In 40 relief appearances this year at Class A Potomac, the hard-throwing, 23-year-old right-hander struck out 95 in batters in 56 2/3 innings – an absurd 15.1 per nine innings – while walking just 19. There’s not much buzz around Wort, but Nationals officials know who he is.

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