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Nats Take a Closer Look at Bullpen

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page D01

KISSIMMEE, Fla., March 22 -- Even those in glamorous roles are virtually anonymous. The closer, for instance. Only serious fans and rotisserie geeks know Chad Cordero can be picked out from afar by his flat-brimmed hat, that Joey Eischen once teetered on the edge of retirement, that T.J. Tucker was recruited by Steve Spurrier, that Luis Ayala proudly wears tank tops with the word "Mexico" scrawled across the front.

They are the members of the Washington Nationals' bullpen -- at least for now. Over the next 10 days, their performances in otherwise meaningless Grapefruit League games will determine how many have a chance to make their summer homes in Washington. As difficult as the Nationals' decisions will be on which position players to keep, the battle for the bullpen spots will be at least that intense.

Right-hander Gary Majewski appears to be among four relievers battling for one roster spot. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)

"Probably more so," Manager Frank Robinson said, "because the guys here are just throwing the ball very well this year, and doing an outstanding job. We have excess [pitching] this year that we haven't had since I've been here, and I think it's quality. So it's going to be very difficult. We'll be down to trying to fit three or four guys into one or two slots."

Only 11 pitchers are likely to make the 25-man roster, at least to start the season. The five starters are all but determined -- Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas Jr., Esteban Loaiza, Tomo Ohka and Zach Day. Five spots in the bullpen seem solid -- Ayala, Cordero, veteran Antonio Osuna and, most likely, left-handers Eischen and Joe Horgan. That could leave right-handers Gary Majewski, T.J. Tucker, John Patterson and Jon Rauch battling for one spot.

"They're making it very tough on us," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "It's surprising to me how competitive it is for those last few spots."

It's a competition the franchise didn't have last year, when it played its final season as the Montreal Expos. Pitchers such as Rocky Biddle, who posted a 6.92 ERA, and Chad Bentz, kept only because he was left-handed, contributed to a bullpen that struggled early in the season. Through early June, the bullpen went 1-14.

Now, with nine competent pitchers for six or seven positions, things are different.

"We've got a lot of arms," Eischen said. "We've got a lot of young guys that are healthy. I think we've got a pen where you can call on almost anybody, almost any night. We'll be up. We'll be ready. I just think we're going to have a lot of depth this year."

The roles haven't completely been sorted out. Cordero, who turned 23 last week, is the presumed closer, particularly after saving 14 of 18 games last year, his first full season in the big leagues. Club officials believe he has the calm demeanor necessary to handle the job; he has stranded all 20 base runners he has inherited in his career. But Robinson is wary of putting that pressure on Cordero before the season, even as the young right-hander has allowed just one run in 6 1/3 innings with one walk and eight strikeouts this spring.

"I totally understand that," Cordero said. "This is still just my second full season in professional baseball, so I'm still trying to get used to everything. If he doesn't think I should have that pressure, that's fine."

Ayala and Osuna -- both Mexican, both buddies -- will likely be the top setup men. Osuna reported to spring training late because his father was diagnosed with cancer, but appears to be fully prepared now. His change-up has baffled hitters in each of his four appearances, during which he has allowed just one base runner.

Neither Horgan nor Eischen have been stellar this spring. Eischen, who was an essential part of the club in 2002 and '03, when he posted a 2.19 ERA in 129 appearances, battled injuries last season. He finally looked like his old self Monday, when his fastball showed some zip during a 1-2-3 inning against the Florida Marlins. Horgan struggled Tuesday in an 8-2 loss to the Houston Astros, allowing three runs in 1 1/3 innings, bumping his ERA to 9.00.

"Joe Horgan is better than what he showed today," Robinson said. "I'm not worried about Joe Horgan."

That's mostly because Horgan was effective last season after the Expos acquired him in a minor league trade. He went 4-1 with a 3.15 ERA in his rookie year. Robinson wants a repeat of that, because he believes he needs two lefties in the bullpen.

"I think it's very necessary and essential because we have no starting left-handers," Robinson said. "A manager, when he plays us, can set his lineup a week in advance. He knows he can put his left-handers [hitters] in there, and that's it. Then, later in the game, I can maneuver, and he has to make a decision one way or another."

But the process to determine who will make the team won't be strictly based on performance. The Nationals are hamstrung because several of the candidates for the staff are out of options, meaning that another team could claim them if they're sent to the minor leagues. Tucker, who turned down a scholarship to kick and punt for the University of Florida football team, falls into that category. Patterson, who went 4-7 with a 5.03 ERA as a starter last season, does as well. Majewski and Rauch, on the other hand, have options left, so they could be sent to the minors without the club risking losing them.

"Sometimes, it has nothing to do with your performance down here," Robinson said.

Down here, performance doesn't matter. But when the season opens April 4, that's all that counts. The names haven't yet been fit into their roles, or even on the roster. But the people in the bullpen and in management feel that, with the choices in front of them, a disastrous start to the year won't be pinned on the pen.

"Knock on wood, we stay in one piece," Eischen said, "I think we'll screw a lot of people's plans up."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company