The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Uncertainty abounds for the Nationals’ pitching staff, including Drew Storen

Ryan Mattheus will return to the Nationals’ bullpen Friday, and in the next month or so Taylor Jordan will hit a team-mandated innings limit and be shut down. Beyond those certainties, nothing appears ironclad for the Nationals’ pitching staff.

The trade deadline looms less than a week away, the team has been unraveling and Drew Storen has struggled. The Nationals have arrived at no conclusions, and Manager Davey Johnson could not rule out a contingency that included Storen being optioned to the minors.

“I don’t think anything is off the table,” Johnson said.

The fluid nature of the Nationals’ pitching staff revolves around Jordan. “It’s going to boil down to what’s really the best thing for him and his development, probably more than anything,” Johnson said.

The 24-year-old rookie has impressed in five starts since replacing Ross Detwiler, who will be out at least another month after receiving an injection in his lower back. But Jordan has between 20 and 30 innings remaining, Johnson believes. (“I haven’t got the time frame on exact innings from higher-ups,” Johnson said, which seems remarkable.)

The Nationals could go several directions. Ross Ohlendorf will start Friday night in the second half a doubleheader. One plan: The Nationals could keep him in the rotation and send Jordan to the minors to stay fresh with short starts, conserving his innings so he can provide insurance for the rotation. Mattheus would stay in the bullpen, Craig Stammen would take the long relief spot and Storen would work out his issues in the majors.

“I had Plan A,” Johnson said. “We might have to go to Plan B.”

The Nationals, really, have several Plan Bs.

They could simply keep Jordan in the rotation and let him naturally cycle through until his innings expire, like how they used Stephen Strasburg last fall. In that case, they could option Mattheus back to the minors after Friday’s doubleheader. Johnson did not rule out sending Storen down, either.

After Storen allowed three runs in 2/3 of an innings last night, his ERA for the season rose to 5.40. In 11 games in July, Storen has an 11.00 ERA. The Nationals made him the 10th overall pick in 2009, and in 2011, Storen saved 43 games. He throws in the mid-90s with an occasionally vicious slider and a plus-change-up.

He remains one of the most talented young relievers in the game, but his season in the wake of a move from closer to set-up man has been disastrous. Storen has yet to adjust to a new role, which Johnson has constantly juggled this year. Johnson himself noted he could tell Storen has no feel for when he should warm up.

“The physical side is controlled by the mental side,” Johnson said. “He’s never had any adversity. And then he had the arm injury last year. Coming back after that, he struggled a little bit, then got it going pretty good. This year he’s struggled a little bit, and I think he was dealing with a new role.

“That mentally, you know, affected him and his way of preparing was totally different. It’s one thing to know. To me, it’s always mental. … With the different configuration of the bullpen, which was totally different from last year to this year, and he wasn’t in a closing situation like he was in ’11. So all that, it was causing some engine blowups. Mentally, I don’t think he was prepared to come in that game.”

And so, Johnson was asked again: Could Storen’s issues lead him to the minors?

“I mean, anything’s possible,” Johnson said. “I’m an optimist and I have a lot of patience. I don’t give up on people, is what I mean. I think that maybe, this has been a long time, but he was a guy with 43 saves and pitched great.”

The Nationals may face another kind of decision on their bullpen: whether or not to blow it up now.

The Nationals are almost certainly going to trade one of their best relievers this winter. It became an inevitability when they signed Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million contract this winter, even if half of the money is deferred. Storen will receive a raise from the $2.5 million he made in arbitration this winter. Tyler Clippard is making $4 million this season and will get another raise in arbitration this winter. Devoting all those funds to a bullpen, such a volatile area of the roster, is tough.

The Nationals beefed up their bullpen this year to minimize late-inning risk as they aimed at contention this year. As their season slips away at the trade deadline, they could take a different course. What a few weeks ago would have been shocking may now be logical. They could maximize the value of the return of trading a reliever by doing it now, before the trade deadline, instead of waiting for the winter.

The Nationals’ trade deadline options could be fluid in regard to the rotation, as well. They may be drifting out of contention now, but trading for a starter under contract for 2014 could help set their rotation next year while also solving the problem of Jordan’s innings limit. Dan Haren and Ohlendorf could round out the back of the rotation, but Haren has struggled this year.

“It’s kind of a big discussion,” Johnson said. “Again, we haven’t got to Sunday yet. You’re asking for a decision that could be made Sunday. Part of it will be made Friday when we go to 26. Last I checked, this was only Thursday.”