Nationals positional review, Part 5: Relievers

October 7, 2013

(Alex Brandon / AP)

Each weekday, we took stock of every Nationals positional group. In Part 5 of 5, we look at the starting pitchers. In previous installments, we looked at the infieldthe outfieldthe catchers and the starters.

2013 SEASON REVIEW

The Nationals began the season with an unusual configuration in their bullpen, but generally confident publicly that it would work. After whiffing on several free agent left-handed relievers, including three of their own in 2012, Tom Gorzelanny, Michael Gonzalez and Sean Burnett, the Nationals opened the season with only Zach Duke as the bullpen’s southpaw. Manager Davey Johnson stumped for a second left-hander, but General Manager Mike Rizzo said that the team could make do with one, if needed, because they felt confident that some of the bullpen’s right-handed relievers could be effective against left-handed batters.

That weakness haunted the Nationals early in the season. The configuration of the bullpen was out of whack. And the struggles of several relievers proved to be big factors in the Nationals’ disappointing season. Ryan Mattheus endured the worst season of his career, broke his right hand after punching a wall in frustration and was later demoted to the minors. Drew Storen also sunk to the lowest point of his career and he, too, was demoted to the minors at one point. New high-prized closer Rafael Soriano, a surprise $28-million offseason signing, notched 43 saves but blew a career-high six saves. The Henry Rodriguez project lasted another two months, which included a 4.00 ERA and a 8.0 BB/9 rate, before the Nationals couldn’t take any more and designated him for assignment.

And Duke, who the Nationals signed to a minor league deal in 2012 and he did well as a starter in Class AAA Syracuse and then as a September call-up, struggled, too. He didn’t transition well from starter to long man and reliever. He posted a 8.71 ERA over 12 games, including one start, before he was designated for assignment and then released in early June. The Nationals needed to overhaul their underperforming bullpen. Rizzo even later admitted that the original configuration of the bullpen and their hope of relying on one left-hander backfired.

The Nationals’ bullpen overhaul included adding two left-handers, rookie Ian Krol, the player to be named later in the Michael Morse deal, and Fernando Abad, a reliever picked off on a minor league deal in the offseason from the Houston Astros. Both began their stints in strong form, before fading. Krol’s first half ERA was 1.80 and 6.57 in the second half. Abad finished with a respectable 3.35 ERA over 39 games, but left-handed batters hit .306 against him. Little-used call-up Xavier Cedeno, picked up on waivers, did well in his limited action; a 1.50 ERA over 11 games. As a whole, left-handed batters hit .255 off the Nationals, the 10th highest mark in the majors.

The Nationals bullpen woes weren’t just limited to the left-handed side. Blindsided by the Soriano offseason signing, Storen began the season as a set-up man and back-up closer. Some feared the loss of his job after blowing NLDS Game 5 ate at Storen. On the mound, his mechanics weren’t consistent and his command bad. He had a 5.95 ERA on July 26 when he was demoted to Syracuse. Tyller Clippard criticized the Nationals for their handling of his close friend. Storen went to Syracuse to find himself, he scrapped his stiff hip delivery for his a high leg kick and returned in mid-August. He posted a 1.40 ERA over 21 games after that.

Soriano, on the other hand, did fine in his first season as the Nationals closer, but he wasn’t spectacular. He finished second in the NL in saves, but he was remembered more for his stumbles. He had fewer clean, 1-2-3 innings than ones with base runners. During one stretch from July to mid-August he had three blowns saves, two losses and a 6.38 ERA.

After two strong seasons, Mattheus wasn’t the same to start in 2013. His command, too, was off. And on May 19, after allowing five runs, he punched a locker in frustration and broke his throwing hand. He returned on July 26 and wasn’t any better. He was even demoted to Syracuse. He finished with a 6.37 ERA.

Clippard and Craig Stammen were the cornerstones of the bullpen. Clippard had his best season since his 2011 all-star campaign. He finished with a 2.41 ERA over 72 games. He was so versatile and dominant that he was brought in to face left-handed batters (who hit .152 against him), he was a set-up man and the first option in close games. If not for a weaker September, he could have finished with a sub-2.00 ERA. He had a 1.94 ERA on Aug. 28.

Stammen, in his second season as the full-time long reliever, finished with a 2.76 ERA over 81 2/3 innings. He was used often and was often reliable, although he allowed more hits per inning this season than in 2012. Ross Ohlendorf and Tanner Roark filled in as well as long relievers, too. Ohlendorf posted a 2.86 ERA over 22 innings as a reliever and Roark a 1.19 ERA over 22 2/3 innings in the same role.

OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

Shoring up the bullpen is one of the Nationals’ biggest offseason priorities. The left-handed side of the bullpen will need addressing. Krol and Abad are both under team control next season and both will likely compete for spots in spring training, but both need more seasoning. In his limited action, Cedeno impressed the Nationals and appears to be in good shape to also compete for a spot in the bullpen next season. The Nationals could likely turn to the free agent market to address this area. Last winter, they were outbid for the services of J.P. Howell, Gorzelanny, Gonzalez or Burnett (who they also feared had injuries). Left-handed relievers are expensive, but maybe the Nationals now believe they must spend there.

Once the pieces fall into place with the left-handed side of the bullpen, the rest of the edges of the bullpen could take form. Perhaps one of the left-handers in next season’s bullpen is also a long reliever. If not, maybe both of the Nationals long relievers are right-handed, such Ohlendorf or Roark, if he doesn’t make the rotation. This could also hinge on the preferences of the new manager.

Rizzo could look to upgrade the bullpen is even splashier ways. Clippard, a Super-2 player, is heading into his third of four arbitration seasons before he hits free agency after the 2015 season. He earned $4 million in 2013 and is due for at least that plus more in 2014. That’s expensive for a set-up man, even if he is a dominant one. Also, the Nationals entered the 2013 season with a plan to not wear down Clippard, but still, no reliever has thrown more innings than him since 2010. He has 323 innings of wear since then. Could Rizzo trade a reliever at his peak when he would get the biggest return back? Perhaps.

In order for the Nationals bullpen to improve in 2014, relievers who struggled need to find consistency again. After he returned from the minors, Storen showed he could regain his form. He earned $2.75 million in 2013 and will be due another raise in arbitration in 2014. Mattheus proved so inconsistent in 2013 that the he will need a strong showing in spring training to ensure he has a spot in the bullpen. The Nationals, too, would welcome improvements by Soriano, who will enter the second guaranteed season of his contract in 2014.

POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

This will be an interesting market to watch. Left-handed relievers are coveted and their prices often inflated. There are some good free agent relievers on the market, but no jaw-dropping must-sign ones.

Here are some notable free agent left-handed relievers: Scott Downs, who is 38 and not even on the Braves NLDS roster; Gonzalez, who is 36 and familiar with the Nationals; Howell, who had a 2.03 ERA in 67 games with the Dodgers; Boone Logan, who had a 3.23 ERA and is coming off bone spur surgery; Javier Lopez, who is 36 and attended Robinson Secondary and the University of Virginia; Eric O’Flaherty, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery; Manny Parra, who had a 3.33 ERA for the Reds; and Oliver Perez, who remade himself into a reliever after struggles as a starter.

PROSPECT TO WATCH

Aaron Barrett, 25, a right-handed reliever who posted strong numbers at Class AA Harrisburg is an intriguing prospect. He wasn’t always one. Barrett jumped from Wabash Valley College, a junior college, in Illinois to the University of Mississippi. He was drafted four times before he signed with the Nationals in 2010.

He started some in his first season before switching full-time to reliever. He did well in 2012 — posting a 2.09 ERA across Class A Hagerstown and Potomac — and notching 17 saves. He also pitched well in the Arizona Fall League.

He then spent the entire season at Harrisburg this season and was named an Eastern League all-star. He had a 2.15 ERA over 51 games, struck out 69 in 50 1/3 innings, the equivalent of a 12.3 K/9 rate, and saved 26 games.

He throws his fastball in the low to mid-90s and his coaches speak highly of his slider, his strikeout pitch. On the major league level, he projects as a middle reliever or potential set-up man. He was 25 years old and in Class AA, so he is obviously a late bloomer. He could likely be at Class AAA Syracuse next season and pushing for a September call-up by year’s end.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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