When the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano this week, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty knew he had two calls to make. The Nationals had just paid a reliever $28 million, and even if McCatty does not decide the roles of his pitchers, he knows what that kind of contract means. The Nationals had signed Soriano to be their closer, the job both Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard have wanted and done well for two years.
McCatty wanted to make one thing clear about his conversations with Storen and Clippard. They were fine. They were not raging with anger or ready to mutiny. Were they a little upset? Frustrated? Sure. But, according to McCatty, both pitchers absorbed the news with an even keel and in a compliant manner.
“It all happened really fast,” McCatty said. “They were the consummate professionals that they are.”
Storen’s ability landed him on the fast track to the majors, which he reached in May 2010, less than a year after the Nationals drafted him 10th overall. He saved 43 games in 2011, only to miss the first three months of 2012 with an elbow injury. He dominated down the stretch and into the playoffs, until the final game of the NLDS, when he allowed four runs in the ninth to complete the Nationals’ collapse.
Storen, who signed a $2.5 million deal Thursday to avoid arbitration, has often spoken about his desire to close, the marquee position in the bullpen and the one that brings the richest contracts. Soriano’s signing created the potential for friction, but McCatty said that wasn’t case.
“He’s a little upset,” McCatty said, but “he was absolutely fine. The bruised ego will heal quickly. Mariano [Rivera] had to sit behind [John] Wetteland for a long time, too. That’s the way to look at it.
“I just told him, ‘Look, obviously, you don’t have to be genius if somebody signs for $28 million to see what’s going on. We’re all professionals. We’ve been here. Whatever role we end up pitching in, we’re going to do what’s best for the Nationals. I told him a bruised ego will heal a lot better than a broken leg. If you make a big deal of this, you’re just killing yourself.”
Clippard, a 2011 all-star, has been one of the most durable relievers in baseball for the past three seasons. With Storen shelved for the start of last season, Clippard seized the closer’s role and saved 32 games. He openly told McCatty he wanted the job last season, and while it remains his ambition, he took the signing of Soriano in stride.
“Clip is laid back,” McCatty said. “He said: ‘Whatever dude. Whether I pitch the seventh or eighth, that’s the way it is.’ Then I said, ‘Don’t be calling me dude.’ Just to give him some grief.”
McCatty said Storen did not initially take the news in the same relaxed tone, but wasn’t overly upset, either.
“Drew doesn’t ever take anything laid back,” McCatty said. “Just a little venting to me. That’s okay. At some point, if these guys said, ‘Cat, that’s the greatest news in the world, I’m happier than a pig in slop,’ I would have had them drug tested right away. Drew’s a little frustrated, I’m sure. But he’s a professional. He’s going to have to be a professional. That part, getting the saves that get you a contract, all the personal stuff goes on the side.
“After a minute into it, after 10 seconds, he was fine. I have these conversations all the time. They’re great conversations. A lot of times, it’s adversarial. It’s good-natured talking and stuff. I know he knows enough about the game. I told him: ‘a bruised ego means nothing in this game. Get over it.’ ”
Nothing about his conversations with Storen and Clippard, who are such good friends they share an apartment in Capitol Hill during the season, surprised McCatty. He expected, even wanted, Storen and Clippard to show some frustration.
“It’s like taking a guy out of the rotation,” McCatty said. “It’s like [John] Lannan last year. Did I expect him to not be upset? Absolutely not. If you don’t have a little [spirit] and vinegar in you, I don’t think you can be any good. I don’t want guys to feel happy. I want them to feel challenged. They’re both professionals. They’re going to handle it great.”
For McCatty and the Nationals, the bruised feelings of Storen and Clippard represent a good problem to have. Last year, Manager Davey Johnson had to decide between Storen and Clippard as his closer. This year, both are still around with another, more experienced reliever ahead of them in the bullpen pecking order.
“I’ve had two closers the last couple years,” McCatty said. “Now I got three.”