Nationals hope new bullpen brings true relief

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. -- Minutes after midnight Dec. 12, Matt Capps and Paul Kinzer, his agent, spoke over the phone and tried to figure out what came next. Capps had just learned the Pittsburgh Pirates chose not to tender him a contract, and for the first time he didn't know what team he would play for. As he and Kinzer chatted, a call beeped into Kinzer's phone. Ten minutes after Capps had become available, Mike Rizzo wanted to talk.

Desperate and determined to fix the Washington Nationals' bullpen, Rizzo spotted an opportunity. His scouts believed Capps could still close games, no matter his 5.80 ERA in 2009. Capps was an experienced and capable reliever, which meant he represented the change Rizzo so badly wanted to make.

The Nationals have undergone a wholesale roster overhaul since this time last year, and the biggest difference between then and now resides in the bullpen. Rizzo and the Nationals, as their exhaustive pursuit of Capps showed, made improving their implosive bullpen a top priority this offseason. The Nationals will open their season Monday with an entirely new set of relievers from the start of last season, experience having overtaken incompetence.

"We needed to get more talented and more depth" in the bullpen, Rizzo said. "We achieved both of those this offseason."

When Rizzo assumed control of the Nationals last year as interim general manager, his first action was to start fixing the bullpen. He signed Joe Beimel, who joined a group of relievers that now looks like a punch line: Joel Hanrahan, Mike Hinckley, Wil Ledezma, Saúl Rivera, Steven Shell, Julián Tavárez. They contributed to, in the words of Rizzo, "a monumental, almost historical bullpen failure."

Not one remained on the team by year's end. ("That might be a rare feat right there," Manager Jim Riggleman said.) Once the offseason arrived, Rizzo did not stop reshaping a bullpen that compiled a league-worst 5.06 ERA.

Of the 22 -- 22! -- relievers the Nationals used at least once, only seven are still in the organization. All seven who were in the opening day bullpen have been stricken. For all of the reasons the Nationals lost 103 games last year, Rizzo figured the bullpen played a prominent role.

"The bullpen was probably the most demoralizing," Rizzo said. "You fight and claw for a lead and then you give it up later in the game. It casts a shadow over the entirety of the game."

Recruiting a closer

Rizzo's first score in the bullpen came Dec. 7, when he traded a Rule 5 pick for Brian Bruney. He threw mid-90s fastballs. He pitched in the World Series last year. He wasn't bothered by the Nationals' past. He was what Rizzo wanted.

"I don't care what the Nationals did last year, and I don't care what I did last year," Bruney said. "It's a new year and it's a new team."

Rizzo still wanted a closer, and a week after he landed Bruney, he seized his chance. He enlisted Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan, Capps's former teammates in Pittsburgh, as recruiters. Rizzo gave Capps's phone number to Riggleman so he could call him.

"They called, it seemed like, every day," Capps said.

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