Nationals Still Trying to Figure Out Bullpen

Nats lefty Mike Hinckley did not allow a run in 14 appearances last season, but has struggled this spring with a 15.75 ERA.
Nats lefty Mike Hinckley did not allow a run in 14 appearances last season, but has struggled this spring with a 15.75 ERA. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., March 12 -- The bus hadn't yet been packed and players were still sleep-walking their way through breakfast Thursday morning at the Washington Nationals' spring headquarters in Viera. Yet there was Mike Hinckley, dressed in a pressed shirt and jeans, sitting in a small room, eyes affixed to a video in front of him. Randy St. Claire, the pitching coach, stood before him, mimicking Hinckley's delivery.

The early-morning session, before the Nationals drove here for what became a 6-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, demonstrated both the wide-open nature of Washington's bullpen situation and the desperation with which candidates are pursuing positions. Two days earlier, Hinckley faced six New York Mets. He retired two, walked two, and allowed two hits. The four runs he yielded left him seething. Jobs are here to be won, not lost, he said. Yet over the next three weeks, some people will do the former, some the latter.

"I'm a competitor," Hinckley said. "So going out there and doing that, I hate it. I want to go out there and let them know that, 'Hey, I want the ball.' Two walks? That's no good."

The concern with the Nationals is that the phrase "that's no good" will describe not only Hinckley's outing, but the bullpen as a whole. For the first three seasons of baseball's return to Washington, Nationals relievers combined for a 3.96 ERA, fourth-best in the National League. Last year, that number ballooned to 4.16, 10th in the league. Now, for the first time, the core of the 2005-07 bullpen -- closer Chad Cordero, setup man Jon Rauch and seventh-inning workhorse Luis Ayala -- is gone, Cordero coming back from injury and a free agent, Rauch and Ayala traded away.

"Those jobs are up for grabs," Manager Manny Acta said. "I hope that those first-week jitters of trying to get the job on the first outing is over, and they do what they have to do."

There is a sense, though, that whether or not first-week jitters linger into this, the third week of games, the Nationals' bullpen is not in its final form. As Acta said Thursday, "My biggest concern here is to end up with a guy who can handle the eighth inning." That says something about the gravity of the concern, considering the man entrusted with handling the ninth, Joel Hanrahan, has been a reliever for exactly one of his nine professional seasons and accumulated all of his 13 save opportunities in the second half of last year.

But put aside Hanrahan, who has allowed one run in 1 1/3 innings for the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic. From 2005 to '08, Cordero, Rauch and Ayala combined for 634 appearances with Washington. Those lost innings will have to come from somewhere.

"They're no longer here," right-hander Jason Bergmann said. "There's spots available. But we've all got to remain positive and make the choice as difficult as possible."

Bergmann is one of several candidates who is coming at the competition from a bit of a strange perspective. He made 43 major league starts over the past two seasons, yet Thursday, he faced two batters out of the bullpen. Garrett Mock, another right-hander, made 99 starts and three relief appearances over five minor league seasons, yet came to the big leagues and worked as a reliever last year. Steven Shell started 137 games as a minor leaguer, yet all of his 39 outings in the majors have been in relief. Even Hinckley, formerly the top-ranked prospect in the Nationals' system, was a starter for the first seven years of his pro career before being sent to the bullpen in 2008.

All of those candidates are dealing not only with the stress of trying to earn a job, but with the unfamiliarity that comes with relatively new roles.

"It's a bigger adjustment than people think," said Shell, who allowed a solo homer to Jason Heyward on Thursday but retired the other four Braves he faced. "It was a big adjustment for me. Last year being my first in the bullpen, I really had to focus on the fact that there's a chance you can pitch every day, whereas starting you can work on stuff in between outings. That's the main thing: Can you learn how to forget about the past and focus on the present?"

Their major league numbers would indicate that Mock and Shell learned that last year. In his 23 relief appearances (he also made three starts), Mock posted a 2.42 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .181 average. Shell's ERA was 2.16, his opponents' average .194. They have the inside track on two of possibly seven relief jobs. Some Nationals officials also expect Bergmann, despite his 5.52 ERA out of the bullpen in 2008, to make the team as a long man.

Hanrahan, entering his first full season as a closer after a minor league career that featured 182 starts, has another spot locked down. So does setup man Saúl Rivera, though Acta is loath to use Rivera as the primary option in the eighth. Of the relievers already in camp, veteran Jesús Colome is the best candidate to set up Hanrahan, Acta said, and club officials are encouraged by the fact Colome hasn't walked any of the 17 men he has faced this spring.

Even if the Nationals make no moves -- and they are in touch with free agent Duaner Sanchez, released this week by the Mets -- that still leaves spots for two lefties. One could be Hinckley, who didn't allow an earned run in 14 major league appearances a year ago. On Friday, Hinckley is scheduled to get a chance to put his earlier debacle behind him and improve his 15.75 spring ERA. Given the environment, there is pressure to do both.

"What happens right now," Hinckley said, "is that I have to let them know: I want the ball now."

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