Nats' Bullpen Could Be Working OT

With an inexperienced starting rotation, this could be a familiar scenario this year: Manager Manny Acta (14) coming to the mound to make a pitching change.
With an inexperienced starting rotation, this could be a familiar scenario this year: Manager Manny Acta (14) coming to the mound to make a pitching change. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

JUPITER, Fla., March 20 -- John Patterson is unquestionably the Washington Nationals' top starting pitcher, and yet in 58 starts since arriving in a trade prior to the 2004 season, he has averaged less than six innings an outing. Shawn Hill has settled into the second spot in the rotation, but he has made all of nine starts in the majors, and he has completed seven innings just twice.

In 2006, only two teams in baseball received fewer innings from their starting pitchers than did the Nationals -- and that was from a more established rotation than will enter this season.

Thus, the only path more traveled than the Bay Bridge this summer might be the 100 or so feet between the home dugout at RFK Stadium and the pitcher's mound, a route that might be renamed "Acta's Alley" by July.

Yes, the Nationals are encouraged by some of their starting pitchers this spring, particularly after four more shutout innings from rookie left-hander Matt Chico in a 3-0 victory over the Florida Marlins Tuesday. But as the summer wears on, Acta will almost certainly be pulling his starters in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings with some degree of regularity, a development that could put tremendous strain on what the club considers to be its strength, the bullpen.

"I think we have guys that can handle it here," said closer Chad Cordero, who hasn't been scored upon in his five spring training outings. "That's what we're down there for, to get up and throw when we get the call."

Acta, though, knows he will have to bridge what could be a significant gulf between the end of a starter's outing and Cordero, who was an all-star in 2005 and has saved 76 games the past two seasons. So Acta comes equipped with a philosophy honed during more than a decade coaching and managing in the minor leagues. If a reliever warms up three times in a game but doesn't come in, he is done for the night, lest he get worn down without even pitching. Acta also doesn't like to use relievers, even left-handed specialists, more than three days in a row.

"That being said, it's 162 games," Acta said. "There's only six, seven guys over there [in the bullpen]. We might go through a rough period where three out of the five starters get knocked out [early]. It's happened here before."

And, of course, it will happen again. But as the Nationals assemble their bullpen, they have reason to believe that -- should Acta be able to avoid overuse -- the group could be strong.

Cordero is entrenched as the closer. Right-handers Jon Rauch, who had a breakthrough 2006, and Ryan Wagner, a former first-round draft pick, will serve as the top setup men, at least until right-hander Luis Ayala fully recovers from elbow surgery. Veteran lefty Ray King, who has more appearances in the majors since 2001 than any other pitcher, almost certainly will make the club as well. Throw in one more lefty -- either Micah Bowie or Billy Traber -- and that leaves two spots remaining for a group that includes Jason Bergmann and Levale Speigner, two right-handers who have done their share of starting this spring, as well as Chris Booker and Saul Rivera.

Those 10 players have combined to pitch 55 2/3 innings this spring, posting a respectable ERA of 3.23. Among the most intriguing developments has been the quiet performance of Speigner, a 26-year-old right-hander who was selected in the Rule 5 draft from Minnesota. In order for the Nationals to keep him, he must remain on the major league roster all season or be offered back to the Twins. He has pitched 8 2/3 innings without giving up a run, allowing only five base runners in four outings.

"I'm comfortable with either one, starting or relieving," Speigner said. "I'm not going to be picky about it."

Which could work in his favor. Acta knows that, during those weeks when he must pull the starter early three or four times, he will need someone who can clean up the mess.

"Up here, [running the pitching staff] is a very crucial part of managing," he said. "There are times when you're just going to have to take it on the chin and bite the bullet and let a guy go out there and get beat up."

Speigner, because he could throw three innings at a time, could be that guy. "I'd be fine with that role," he said.

The main question for the bullpen this season might be whether it will stay together. Cordero has been the subject of trade talk all winter, and while the Nationals are insisting on at least one top-flight starting pitching prospect in return -- in addition to another prospect, regardless of position -- there's a chance a team desperate for a closer as the year goes on could meet those demands.

Quietly, too, the Nationals have let teams know that they would listen to offers for Rauch, according to two baseball sources. The 6-foot-11 right-hander is coming off a season in which he appeared in a career-high 85 games and posted a 3.35 ERA.

But whoever is in the bullpen, Acta knows his team isn't built to endure long stretches in which it builds leads, and then watches the bullpen give them back.

"It's just very demoralizing," Acta said, "because if you win a game for eight innings, and then you lose it in one, it takes a toll on a team. Sometimes it takes more than one day to recuperate from that."

And if Acta is going to walk that path to the mound in the early innings, he doesn't want to be handing the ball to someone who will make things worse instead of better.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company