Ryan Wagner Works for a Spot in Washington Nationals' Bullpen

The Washington Nationals prepare for the 2009 season in Viera, Fla.
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 21 -- At one point, when Ryan Wagner needed to depend on his arm, it delivered almost every time. His college career -- "he had just unbelievable stuff," University of Houston teammate Garrett Mock said -- convinced the Cincinnati Reds to draft Wagner in the first round, 14th overall. Forty-six days later, after only nine minor league innings, Wagner debuted in the big leagues.

But that was six years ago -- or better yet, one trade and one major injury ago. Since June 2007, when Wagner underwent surgery on a torn right labrum, the pitcher has encountered moments where he scarcely recognized his arm. He began his comeback last season, and his inability to pitch per usual made him "absolutely miserable." He couldn't extend his right arm, meaning he couldn't generate snap on his two-seamer or his slider. He never made it beyond Class AAA, and the Washington Nationals non-tendered him in December.

"Was I any good?" Wagner said on Saturday, thinking back to last season. "No. But it was part of the process of breaking through scar tissue, and that was just part of the surgery."

This spring, Wagner is back with the Nationals as a non-roster invitee, and his right arm doubles as a good representative model for the Washington bullpen. Once, that bullpen was a strength. Now, with plenty of questions, it's trying to get back to its old condition.

With pitchers in camp for more than a week, pitching coach Randy St. Claire and Manager Manny Acta categorize only two relievers -- Joel Hanrahan and Saúl Rivera -- as locks for the roster. Those other five or so spots? During spring training, no other element of the team is so up for grabs.

"It's not like these are eight- or 10-year veterans where if they go out and get their [butts] kicked, you can say, 'Well, he'll be fine.' We don't have that," St. Claire said. "So yeah, they have to perform."

Wagner is one of about a dozen pitchers with a shot at a bullpen job. The Nationals are inclined to look first at those newcomers who pitched well in the second half of 2008 -- Steven Shell, Mike Hinckley and Mock top that list -- but the other spots will be cobbled together from a cast of converted starters (maybe Jason Bergmann or Marco Estrada), Rule 5 draft picks (maybe Terrell Young), and nonroster invitees with big league experience (Gary Glover, Gustavo Chacín, Jesús Colome, and yes, Wagner).

In 2008, Washington's relievers had a 4.18 ERA, 10th best in the National League. Their collective productivity was not as problematic as the sheer turnover -- the epic makeover necessitated by three developments. Chad Cordero needed shoulder surgery. Jon Rauch got traded. Luis Ayala stopped pitching like Luis Ayala. And all of a sudden, the regular seventh-eighth-ninth formula -- Washington's security blanket for years -- gave way to uncertainty. The Nationals used 19 relief pitchers in 2008. Some, like Shell (39 games, 50 innings, 2.16 ERA), showed promise. Others, like Brian Sanches (12 games, 11 innings, 7.36 ERA) showed themselves the door.

"We're rebuilding our bullpen," Acta said. "It was a luxury for this ballclub these last few years coming into camp having Cordero, Rauch and Ayala. Despite our shortcomings, very few teams had a bullpen like we had. And now, three of those guys on the backend are gone and the kids that pitched well last year, it was their first time around and you still don't know. That will be the toughest challenge here to put together a quality bullpen."

Last year, Wagner never felt healthy enough to get a head-start in the derby. The recovery from labrum surgery necessitated -- and tested -- Wagner's patience, and even in Class AAA Columbus, he had a 5.68 ERA in 16 games, 19 innings. But since January, Wagner has thrown 15 or 16 bullpen sessions, most recently on Saturday.

"I feel like I'm back to myself, the same guy that was drafted in '03," he said.

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