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Nationals positional review, part 2: Bullpen

Drew Storen. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Each day this week, and carrying into next week, we’ll be taking stock of every Nationals positional group. In Part 2 of 5 today, we’ll analyze the bullpen. We’ve already looked at the starting rotation.

Season review

A year ago, the Nationals bullpen was solid but with weaknesses. The bullpen had only one left-handed reliever to start the 2013 season, was overhauled midway through the year and Drew Storen was demoted for a month to work on his mechanics. Entering this season, the bullpen was in a much better position thanks to additions, and it proved to be a bedrock.

General Manager Mike Rizzo shied away from the expensive free agent relief market in the winter and traded for left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins. Storen returned from his demotion a better pitcher and it carried over into 2014. Rafael Soriano began the season on a dominant tear. Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen were reliable as always. Rookie Aaron Barrett and his electric slider were a spring training revelation. And before the spring competition for the final spot in the rotation was over, Ross Detwiler was inserted into the bullpen, which was meant to bolster the relief corp with a hard-throwing left-hander.

The Nationals finished with the fourth-best bullpen ERA (3.00) in the majors, behind only the Mariners, Padres and Athletics. By another measure, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) the Nationals’ 3.05 mark was the best in baseball. They racked up 5.2 wins above replacement, according to, the fourth most in the majors. And because the Nationals starting rotation was the best in baseball, the bullpen’s workload was manageable (468 1/3 innings, 23rd most).

Storen was among the best relievers in baseball. Only Kansas City’s Wade Davis (1.00 ERA) posted a better ERA than Storen’s 1.12 among qualified relievers. Storen’s command, slider and change-up were keys to his success, and he proved excellent both as a set-up man for most of the year and then as the everyday closer when he took over for a struggling Soriano in early September. Storen seized control of the opportunity to close again. Before blowing a save in NLDS Game 2 against the Giants, his first postseason save chance since his fateful 2012 NLDS Game 5 meltdown, Storen was 10 for 10 in save chances as the everyday closer.

Soriano was also among the best relievers in baseball in the first half of the season, when he posted a 0.97 ERA and 22 saves, and looked like the high-prized closer signed the year before. In the second half, the 34-year-old struggled, was hit hard, posted a 6.48 ERA, blew five more saves, lost the closer’s role and worked his way back into an irregular set-up role. After Soriano and Storen were snubbed, Clippard earned his second All-Star game selection, finished with a 2.18 ERA and a 3.57 K/BB ratio. He proved yet again he has a rubber arm and is among the most durable relievers in recent history.

Stammen was useful again as a long reliever and multi-purpose reliever, pitching better than his final 3.84 ERA may indicate. The Nationals hoped Blevins (4.87 ERA) would be a full-inning reliever, as he has done in the past, but he struggled against right-handers. He did, however, hold left-handed batters to a .160 average, finished the season strong, earned a spot on the playoff roster and fired 3 1/3 scoreless postseason innings in key spots.

Detwiler (4.00 ERA), who wanted to remain a starter, had trouble adjusting to the relief role, which he had done in the past. He had good and bad stretches, and couldn’t find a rhythm. The Nationals insisted he would be a weapon in the bullpen, but Detwiler was often used in mop-up duty, and didn’t make the playoff roster. Barrett, a product of the Nationals’ drafting and player development system, earned Manager Matt Williams’ trust quickly, then tired in the longest professional season of his career, returned strong in September and gave up the winning run in the Nationals’ elimination in NLDS Game 4.

The Nationals added hard-throwing left-hander Matt Thornton on a waiver claim from the Yankees in August and the veteran was a key addition. He allowed no runs in his 11 1/3 innings as a National, bringing a fresh and experienced arm to a bullpen that tired late during the previous playoff run.

Offseason outlook

The Nationals’ bullpen faces a handful of questions over the winter. The struggles of Soriano allowed an opening for Storen, who showed he can be trusted with the ninth inning. Soriano saved 75 games over two years, but he appears headed for free agency again as the Nationals will likely decline to pick up his $14 million team option. As a result, everyone could slide back an inning, returning to the 2012 configuration. Storen would presumably get the the ninth, Clippard should be back to the primary set-up role in the eighth and perhaps an improved Barrett or Thornton could handle the seventh.

With the seemingly inevitable departure of Soriano, the bullpen will also become cheaper. Storen and Clippard will be due sizable raises in arbitration, and Stammen and Blevins will get bumps in pay, too. Clippard, who made $5.88 million as a set-up man this season, is entering his final year of arbitration. The Nationals could consider an extension for him but he has logged a ton of innings and relievers are volatile. The most likely scenario is that the Nationals keep the Clippard-Storen configuration at the end of games, but rival teams have inquired about the availability of both players in the past. Thornton is due $3.5 million in 2015, the final year of his deal.

If everyone shifts up an inning, perhaps Stammen could serve a more versatile role and Blake Treinen could serve as the long reliever, which he handled well in stints this season. Blevins, who enters his final year of arbitration in 2015, could serve as the left-handed specialist. Detwiler could likely be shopped around to teams in search of a starter, but his value has been hurt by a move to the bullpen and then being held out of the playoffs. Relief depth such as left-hander Xavier Cedeno, who is out of options, and Ryan Mattheus will have much to prove in spring training.

Possible free agent targets

The Nationals could perhaps explore the free agent market for a set-up man or veteran arm. The closer market, as the $28-million Soriano tenure showed, is expensive. Right-handed reliever Luke Gregerson could likely command a multi-year deal but the set-up man is reliable and posted a career-best 2.12 ERA this season. Left-handed set-up man Andrew Miller will be among the most prized relief arms in the winter and would probably command a lucrative contract, but he would instantly boost any bullpen.

If the Nationals prefer cheaper, more veteran options, relievers like Jason Motte, Pat Neshek, Tim Stauffer, Burke Badenhop and improved former National Zach Duke could be options. Darren O’Day and Joel Peralta could be good fits, too, but have reasonable team options that could be picked up.

Prospect to watch

Over the past year, Matt Grace has vaulted up through the minor leagues and put himself on the Nationals’ map. The left-hander turned from struggling starter to reliever in 2013 and has improved ever since. He began the year at Class AA Harrisburg and posted a 1.02 ERA and 1.245 WHIP over 35 1/3 innings. The 25-year-old earned a promotion to Class AAA Syracuse and punched up a 1.30 ERA and 0.984 WHIP over 41 2/3 innings.

Grace, drafted by the Nationals out of UCLA in the eighth round of the 2010 draft, throws a sinker in the 89 to 92 mph range. His improved slider has helped him pitch well to both sides of the plate. He has several traits that show he has potential to be a big league reliever: He is durable (14 of his 28 appearances at Syracuse were longer than an inning), he rarely gives up homers (only one in 77 innings this year), and he has dominated left-handed batters (he held them to a .113 average at Syracuse).

Grace is pitching in the Arizona Fall League now. He isn’t on the Nationals’ 40-man roster but he likely has earned a big league camp invite and a shot at a job with a strong showing. Or, at least, he should be among the first arms up from the minor leagues should any issues arise in the majors during the season.