The Nationals’ one unsettled group: the bullpen

brushbackEven before the first workout of spring training, which is Thursday morning for pitchers and catchers, every group of the Nationals‘ roster is nearly set save one: the bullpen. There’s a vague sense of who will likely make the team but for now it’ll be almost like an open competition for most of the seven spots.

“We’re going to go with the best guys,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “The amount of left-handed relievers has never been a priority to me. Mostly because we’ve got right-handers that can get left-handers out. And it coincides with Davey’s managerial style.”

Added pitching coach Steve McCatty: “You sit there and say, ‘Are there any openings?’ Davey hasn’t made a decision on what he wants to do, how many left-handers he wants, all that. There’s going to be a competition. [Drew] Storen, [Rafael] Soriano and [Tyler] Clippard, are you going to say that’s etched in stone? Yeah, okay, it is. We’re just going to have to see where we think we need to be, have guys come out to throw and see what Davey decides he wants to do.”

Soriano, the Nationals’ splashy offseason signing, Clippard and Storen seem like the most assured pieces of the bullpen. The Nationals wanted to strengthen their relieving corp and shorten games with a dominant back end of the bullpen so parting with any of those three — such as trading Clippard and Storen — would be counterproductive. “[Soriano is] obviously coming in going to be my closer but I have also a lot of confidence in some other guys who can be my closer and that’s a good problem to have,” Manager Davey Johnson said.

Clippard and Ryan Mattheus — and even Craig Stammen last season — have all had success against left-handed batters as right-handed relievers. That gives the Nationals flexibility and the ability to feasibly field a bullpen with only one left-handed reliever. Johnson loves Stammen’s ability and versatility and Mattheus’s power sinker. But if Bill Bray, here on a minor league contract, impresses this spring, could the Nationals try to stash Mattheus or Stammen in the minor leagues as protection against injuries?

Duke, 29, is the team’s lone left-hander with a major league contract and his spot also appears secure. (Johnson also likes Duke: “I think a lot of him.”) Duke is filling the role of the departed Tom Gorzelanny as a left-handed long reliever, spot starter and could be brought in to face a few left-handers if needed. He has held left-handed hitters to a .279 average in his career, mostly as a starter, but performed well against hitters on both sides of the plate in his stint with the major league club in his September call-up.

The three most intriguing moving parts of the bullpen equation are Christian Garcia, Henry Rodriguez and Bray. The Nationals are stretching out the talented Garcia, 27, a former starter-turned-reliever-and-now-back, this spring and will have him throw multiple innings in his appearances. Even though the crowded bullpen makes it easier to send him to Class AAA Syracuse to to develop as a starter, the Nationals are keeping their options with him open and haven’t committed to that yet.

Bray, when healthy, was a strong left-handed reliever. The Nationals signed him to a minor league deal with a spring training invitation hoping to use him as a left-handed specialist. There’s obviously a logjam of major league-quality relievers but if Bray performs well this spring he could force the Nationals into an even tougher decision. Left-handed batters hit .218 off of Bray in his career.

Bray, 29, suffered through a groin and back issue last season with the Cincinnati Reds but, according to McCatty, has been throwing well this winter. McCatty discovered that Chris Michalak, the Class A Potomac pitching coach, lived near Bray outside of Dallas and sent him to work with Bray in the offseason. “They threw together quite a bit,” McCatty said. “Chris told me he was throwing the ball really good. I saw Bill and he told me he was feeling really good. It’s all positive stuff.”

If Rodriguez’s surgically repaired elbow is tender, as Johnson noted on Wednesday, it’s feasible the Nationals would go slow with him through the entire spring and perhaps start him on the disabled list if it continues to persist. Rodriguez is an enigma because of his overpowering stuff but frustratingly hot-and-cold control but the Nationals still believe in his talent and potential. He can’t be sent to the minors because he is out of options and that would essentially mean parting ways with him. Putting Rodriguez on the disabled list and sending him to the minors on a rehab assignment would be a way to hold onto him and keep him as insurance if any relievers on the major league roster were to get hurt.

Difficult decisions lie ahead but it’s far too early in spring training. Little clarity will immediately be shed on the composition of the bullpen. Injuries happen over the course of spring training and a pitcher could struggle or dominate and change the projected plan.

“When you’ve won the pennant, you generally have maybe one or two spots that are somewhat unsettled,” Johnson said. “But the majority of our guys are awfully young and still very young in their careers. There’s some competition for maybe one spot here and there. One spot among the pitchers, one spot among the position players. But it’s not a big opening. It depends on the health of the guys.”
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