This winter, two of the Nationals’ left-handed relievers, Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez, became free agents, and they decided to not tender a contract to the third left-hander, Tom Gorzelanny. In a market in which left-handed relievers were a hotly-sought-after commodity, the Nationals then pursued all three of them and their top free agent left-handed target J.P. Howell.
But the Nationals whiffed on all four of those relievers, leaving Zach Duke, who re-signed after spending most of last season in the Nationals minors, as the lone left-handed reliever on the major league roster for next season. Their reason for the lack of signings:The Nationals approached all the lefty reliever free agents knowing that their right-handed relievers under contract are capable against left-handed opponents.
“We played in the free agent market on several of the left-handed relievers and couldn’t get a deal done,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “The reason for that is that we feel our right-handed relievers get out lefties and [Manager] Davey [Johnson is] not a big left-on-left, one-batter-at-a-time type of manager anyways. So we feel good about our bullpen and it’s not a necessity to get a left-handed specialist-type of reliever, but if one made sense for us we certainly wouldn’t rule it out.”
Earlier this winter, Johnson stated his preference in adding a second left-hander to the bullpen to help Duke, who would fill the role vacated by Gorzelanny as the left-handed long reliever. But he and Rizzo felt confident in their backup plan of Tyler Clippard and Ryan Mattheus, the two Nationals right-handers most effective against left-handers. The Nationals could have reinforcements in Bill Bray and Fernando Abad, the two left-handers they signed to minor league deals that included invitations to major league camp.
The Nationals are open to adding a left-handed reliever — but under the right terms. They balked at the seemingly reasonable prices for Burnett (two-year, $8.5 million, plus incentives) and Howell (reportedly one year for $2.85 million, plus a potential $1.2 million in performance bonuses). Rizzo has shown through his previous deals that he is averse to handing out big salaries to free agent relievers. So, of the remaining free agent relievers, the Nationals’ options appear slim. Were they to trade Michael Morse with Adam LaRoche now signed to a two-year deal, they could address their bullpen or starting pitching depth.
“The right left-handed reliever would be great,” Rizzo said. “I think Davey likes to have at least two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. But we have a very unique and special type of bullpen. Our right-handers get left-handed hitters better than most left-handed specialists get them out. It’s not something that we feel that we have to do.”
Clippard has held left-handers to a .186 average in his career and right-handers to a .213 average. Left-handers hit .219 off of Mattheus in his career and right-handers hit .246. Even Henry Rodriguez has held lefties to a .245 average in his time in the majors. The Nationals have two right-handed relievers who are considerably effective at getting out left-handed batters, the type of hitters prevalent on the rosters of rivals Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies.
If Bray makes the major league roster and regains his pre-injury form, the Nationals could have an easy answer to the possible hole. For now, they will continue exploring the market for left-handed relievers, feeling good about their in-house options should they fail to strike a deal.