The Nationals’ bullpen is out of whack

brushback_harperLast year for the Nationals, injuries revealed talent. This year, despite largely the same cast, their poor health has only exposed weakness. Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadina all flourished in fill-in starting roles last season. This year, even after three hits from Lombardozzi on Saturday, they are hitting a combined .173 with nine walks in 202 at-bats. The Nationals thrived on their reserves last year. Through a quarter of the season, they have been desperate when starters go down.

The Nationals could have rightly expected regression from their bench, such an unforeseen and essential force last year, but not to this degree. Unless 2012 was a total mirage, the trio should swing back closer toward last year’s output. Those three, Moore especially, are in a bad way at the moment, but it would smack of panic if the Nationals made changes 44 games in.

Where the Nationals could afford to make change, though, is the structure of their bullpen. It is, in a word, a mess. The relievers’ performance has been fine – not great, but fine. The way they have been deployed has been screwy, and it has to do with the composition of the staff, and it was never clearer than over the past two days.

Saturday, Manager Davey Johnson chose Zach Duke (ERA: 8.40) over Craig Stammen (2.25) for a spot start. Stammen, Johnson said, was too valuable in his current role to take even one start. Johnson was probably correct in that assessment. But what does it say about the state of the bullpen when a long reliever cannot be asked to make a spot start when needed?

The problem is, Stammen has become a hybrid set-up/long man. He’s doing his job and the job that ought to be earmarked for Henry Rodriguez – except Rodriguez has not been trusted to do it. Rodriguez remains tantalizing, and his 100 mph fastball and the curveballs and that bend into the strike zone make you see why the Nationals do not want to lose Rodriguez. And they would lose him, because he’s out of options and some also-ran would find his talent too mesmerizing to pass up. But on a team headed for a pennant race, he has been treated like dead weight. Johnson has simply not used him in competitive situations.

And so, the Nationals have effectively been a man short in the bullpen. In San Francisco, with Duke making a start, the Nationals will be down to a five-man bullpen in meaningful spots. If Stammen is forced to sop up innings behind Duke, they’ll have a four-man bullpen for Tuesday if it’s a close game, unless Johnson wants to roll the dice with Rodriguez in a tight contest, something he has shown zero appetite for.

Sunday, Rodriguez pitched in a 7-2 game, which is the role he occupies for now. Once the Nationals made it 7-4, Johnson had an inkling the Nationals could come back. He called on Ryan Mattheus, who has been lost among the army of right-handers in the bullpen. Though effective, he had pitched in just 13 games, and not since Tuesday.

The rust showed. Mattheus was hammered for five runs in the seventh, and a potential chance for a comeback turned into an embarrassment. To his credit, Mattheus would not use the time off as an excuse.

“I don’t think that’s it,” Mattheus said. “I’ve been up the last two nights in the bullpen, so I should definitely be sharp. Not getting in the games isn’t an excuse. I still got to get the job done.”

Still, the past couple years as he received regular work, Mattheus has never suffered through such a rotten performance.

As Mattheus was bludgeoned, he threw too many pitches to come back out for the ninth. Johnson, needing to save Stammen for Monday behind Duke, brought in Drew Storen. His top set-up man pitched in a 12-4 game. When that happens, something is not adding up.

“Sometimes, it takes time,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a little imbalanced situation out there. I think they’ve done really good so far, all things considered. We just need to be a little bit better.”

In that statement, Johnson hinted at one issue with the Nationals. The lack of a lefty hasn’t necessarily doomed individual pitchers. But it has, in a sense, confused roles. The Nationals best set-up can get out lefties. But they can’t do as effectively as, say, Michael Gonzalez last year. And if they had a lefty, Johnson would be more likely to use him for some innings than Rodriguez.

It would be difficult for the Nationals to bite the bullet and pass Rodriguez, a project for going on two-plus years now, and go with a lefty instead. If they did, they would have options, even if J.C. Romero is on the disabled list with Class AAA Syracuse.

Fernando Abad, who impressed Nationals evaluators and Johnson during spring training, has 1.06 ERA in 17 games at Syracuse with 12 strikeouts and two walks. Bill Bray, who seemed like a likely contributor until mechanical issues derailed him in the spring, is putting himself back together at Class AA Harrisburg. Either pitcher could help alleviate the “imbalance.”

With Detwiler hurt, and the Nationals disinclined to put him on the DL, the bullpen awkwardness only increases.

“That puts a little crimp in things,” Johnson said. “We’ll survive it. We’ve got some good guys. We’ll survive this thing.”

Here’s the thing: The Nationals, predicted to dominate in the spring, are not supposed to be surviving. They are supposed to be rolling. In order to reach that point, it may take some roster tweaks, however minor, particularly in the bullpen.

 

FROM THE POST

Dan Haren tumbled back to his troubling form and the Nationals found more mediocrity in a 13-4 loss to the Padres.

Looking at the nuances of Mike Rizzo’s contract situation and what the Nationals’ picking up his 2014 option really meant.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Harper hopes to return

Rizzo endorses Espinosa

Updates on Detwiler, Werth

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Toledo 4, Syracuse 3: Micah Owings went 2 for 4 with a double. Ross Ohlendorf allowed four runs in 5 1/3 innings on nine hits and a walk, striking out three. Fernando Abad allowed no runs in 1 2/3 innings, allowing three hits and no walks.

Harrisburg 11, Reading 3: Anthony Rendon went 1 for 3 with a triple and a walk. Brian Goodwin went 2 for 5 with a walk. Destin Hood went 2 for 3 with two walks. Jerad Head went 3 for 6 with a homer. Blake Treinen allowed one run in six innings on six hits and two walks, striking out five.

Winston-Salem 7, Potomac 3: Caleb Ramsey went 4 for 4 with a home run. Robert Gilliam allowed three runs  in six innings on five hits and four walks, striking out six.

Hagerstown was rained out.

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