After the Nationals traded for Jerry Blevins in December, the Nationals viewed Xavier Cedeño as the lead candidate to compete for the job in the bullpen as the second left-hander. It made sense: Blevins has had success in his career against hitters from both sides of the plate and Cedeño has mostly been a lefty specialist.

But with Ross Detwiler having to compete for the fifth starter’s spot, there was always the possibility that he could shift to the bullpen. That became reality on Monday when Manager Matt Williams announced that Detwiler would indeed begin the season pitching in relief. Williams hasn’t closed the door on having three left-handers in the bullpen, which still leaves an opportunity for veteran Michael Gonzalez and Cedeño to make the roster.

After a 2013 season in which he flashed potential in limited chances with the Nationals, Cedeño entered camp with a mission to improve against right-handed batters. At Class AAA Syracuse last season, Cedeño posted a minuscule 1.31 ERA over 39 appearances and opponents hit .189 against him. Left-handers hit .167 against him and right-handers hit .206 against him. Cedeño was optioned back and back between the majors and Syracuse several times, but didn’t get much of an opportunity to throw consistently until September. In six innings over 11 games against mostly left-handed batters, Cedeño allowed only five hits and one run. But Cedeño wanted to add versatility.

“I want to give the manager more options,” he said. “Instead of just being lefty on lefty, one or two batters, I want to help get right-handers out, too.”

And this spring, Cedeño has shown some improvement. It is an extremely small size, but in 6 2/3 innings right-handers are hitting .238 against him and left-handers are hitting .286. He has faced mostly right-handers this spring, so the numbers are skewed. He has surrendered no runs to left-handers and three to right-handers, most of them in one bad and windy outing. But Cedeño has found reason to believe that he making progress.

Cedeño is throwing in side on right-handers more than he ever in his career. Before now, Cedeño said he relied on his breaking pitches — curveball and change-up — to the outer half of the plate. “It was easier for them to make contact,” he said. Now he is pounding 90-mile-per-hour fastballs in on right-handers’ fists.

Against left-handers, Cedeño drops his arm down to a side-arm delivery, a technique he developed a three years ago when he was struggling against them. “It makes it harder for them,” he said. “It hides the ball more. When you drop the arm down, the ball feels like it’s coming from behind them.”

Last season was tough for Cedeño, bouncing back and forth between Syracuse and the Nationals, and not pitching for a few days at a time. That made it hard to work on things during games. He spent the offseason resting his arm, weight lifting, running a lot in his native Puerto Rico and pitching in a winter ball league there, facing a lot of right-handers again. He said when he came into camp his arm felt stronger than before.

Cedeño has options, so the Nationals could again stash him in Syracuse to start the season if they choose to have only two left-handers in the bullpen. Cedeño could serve as depth in case of injury or poor performance. For now, Cedeño isn’t concerning himself with the future.

“I don’t think about that stuff,” he said. “I come here and do my work. The decision is theirs. I’m working hard for my career and to help this team win. I’m not the one in charge. But I feel ready to this. Hopefully, by the end of spring training. We’ll see.”


Ross Detwiler, who had been competing for fifth starter’s spot, is moved to the bullpen, Adam Kilgore writes.


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