Storen flew to Washington on Thursday for an MRI exam on his right elbow after he experienced lingering soreness in his biceps and triceps. The test revealed inflammation in his joint but no structural damage to the ulnar collateral ligament, which if torn necessitates Tommy John surgery.
Doctors prescribed rest for Storen. He will not even play catch for four or five days, Johnson said. Johnson called Storen’s throwing program “very conservative,” with the Nationals intent not to rush him back to pitch by opening day. Storen last pitched in a spring training game March 7.
“This time of year, you take it extremely slow,” Johnson said. “He needs to be 100 percent ready. . . . I’m going to prepare for the possibility that he doesn’t break with us. I’m not saying it’s out of the question. But I’m going to prepare my staff for the possibility Storen might not be my closer for those games.”
In Storen’s potential absence, the Nationals would use Lidge or Rodriguez — and not all-star set-up man Tyler Clippard — to close games. Johnson does not want to remove Clippard from his high-leverage role, in which he can pitch multiple innings or enter in the middle of an inning to escape jams.
“It’s hard to replace what he does,” Johnson said. “What he did last year is at least as important, if not more important, than your closer. You want to avoid weakening two positions.”
Clippard has ranked among the best, most durable relievers in baseball for the past two seasons, throwing more innings than any major league reliever over that span. Last year, Clippard had a 1.83 ERA in 881
Clippard has not chafed about his versatile role, but he would like to pitch the ninth inning eventually.
“I want to be a closer,” Clippard said earlier this spring. “I think everyone as a reliever in baseball, if you’re not striving to be the best at your craft, you’re not progressing as a player. In most cases, the best relievers are closers. So, yeah, I want to be a closer.”
In Lidge and Rodriguez, the Nationals have disparate options to fill in for Storen. The Nationals signed Lidge, 35, late this winter as a free agent after he spent four seasons with Philadelphia. He owns 223 career saves, and in 2008 he recorded the final out of the World Series.
The Nationals acquired Rodriguez in December 2010 in a trade from Oakland. Rodriguez threw the hardest fastball in the majors last year, and once he began finding the strike zone with it he became a weapon in the back end of the bullpen. Rodriguez saved two of the Nationals’ final seven games last year, a cameo Johnson views as important experience.