Do the Nationals need a lefty reliever?

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
The Nationals are content to have Tyler Clippard, above, and Ryan Mattheus face left-handed hitters. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

 

If the Nationals’ roster has any holes on paper, it would be the lack of a second left-hander in the bullpen to pair with long reliever Zach Duke. After almost an entire spring, the Nationals themselves still do not consider it a hole. They are content to match up against left-handed hitters with Ryan Mattheus and Tyler Clippard, letting the deep back end of their bullpen handle whatever hitters come to bat.

Johnson said the Nationals have considered left-handers Fernando Abad and Bill Bray, both non-roster invitees. But “I have a great deal of comfort zone with some of my right-handers facing left-handed hitters,” Johnson said. “I’ll be picking and creating, in my mind, which is the best right-hander to go against certain left-handers. I’m comfortable with what we have now. I was comfortable with what we had at the end of last season.”

Facing left-handed hitters late in the game is of particular importance in the National League East, a division loaded with lefties like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Freddie Freeman and Ike Davis. Mattheus and Clippard both have strong “reverse splits” – they’re better against left-handed hitters than right-handed batters, so even if they don’t throw left-handed they can function like a lefty.

Mattheus throws a diving splitter, a weapon against left-handed hitters, and Clippard throws a change-up that especially baffles lefties. For the rest of the bullpen, Johnson has confidence that the pitchers’ raw ability makes it irrelevant which side of the plate the hitter stands.

“I’ve got four guys who can close,” Johnson said. “I think that’s case closed. If they close, do you worry about whether they hit right or left?”

This winter, the Nationals let Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny leave in free agency to leave themselves without a late-inning lefty. Neither Bray, who is in minor league camp trying to fix his mechanics, nor Abad can opt out of their minor league deals until at least June. So if the Nationals decide they do need another lefty, they’ll have internal options, and the ability to trade for one. In the meantime, Johnson is happy with his gang of right handers.

“The way we’re configured right now, I don’t know any of the guys on my club I would let go to pick up a lefty,” Johnson said.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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James Wagner · March 20, 2013

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