Left-handed relievers are in high demand this offseason, and the market has already shown that they will command a high price. The Nationals added a needed left-handed arm to the bullpen by re-signing Zach Duke on Monday, and they are interested in potentially adding another one. The Nationals have spoken with Sean Burnett‘s representatives but, so far, he is out of the team’s price range.
“We like Sean; we’d like to bring him back,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “But it has to make sense for us, and right now I don’t see a fit financially or term-wise. But he hasn’t signed with anybody yet, and we’ll see where it leads us.”
Burnett was an important piece of the Nationals bullpen last season, posting a 2.38 ERA over 56 2/3 innings — and, because of that, he could receive a contract similar to the three-year, $18 million deal that fellow lefty Jeremy Affeldt signed with the San Francisco Giants last month.
There’s already stiff competition for Burnett, with the Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim, St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers needing left-handers in their bullpen. (According to Burnett’s agent, the reliever is not seeking a four-year deal.) While Monday’s update isn’t necessarily the end for the Nationals and Burnett, who has interest in staying in Washington, the chances of the Nationals securing him for next season seems slimmer now.
Rizzo said Duke, a starter in Class AAA Syracuse last season, will be stretched out during spring training — insurance for the team’s currently vacant fifth starter spot in the rotation. If he is needed as a starter, Rizzo said Duke can start. If not, he will be the left-handed long reliever that Manager Davey Johnson likes to employ. Christian Garcia, who impressed as a reliever last season and will compete for a starting job in spring training, will also be stretched out like Duke.
“They’ll be in the mix for a fifth starting job or at least as starting depth,” Rizzo said.
The Nationals are still interested in adding a second left-handed reliever. Earlier this winter, free agent reliever Michael Gonzalez said he was interested in returning to the Nationals, and the team was open to it. Tom Gorzelanny, who served as the team’s lefty long reliever and was non-tendered last week, could also be an option. The Nationals have also discussed J.P. Howell, who spent the past seven years with the Tampa Bay Rays and posted a 3.04 ERA in 50 1/3 innings last season.
“We’d like to get a second left-hander,” Rizzo said. “It’s not a necessity because our right-handed relievers get out left-handers well, but in a perfect world we’d like to get a second.”
But, if the Nationals were unable to find a left-handed reliever for cheap, could they make do with their existing bullpen? It’s an interesting idea if you examine last year’s numbers. Right-handed relievers such as Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen are particularly effective against left-handers. Clippard held left-handers to a .170 average last season in large part because of his change-up, while Stammen, with a power sinker and slider, allowed them to hit only .198 off him. In addition, left-handed batters hit .208 off Henry Rodriguez.